Cover Story

Waimea shorebreak (L), Ke iki rescue. Ehukai jet ski rescue, below.
Image: monica parker (here and opposite); andre moura (jet ski, below)

In addition to risking their lives to save others, Hawai‘i lifeguards are trying to keep their own heads above water.


Cover image for Dec 12, 2012

On January 28, 2009, the day before the most recent Eddie Aikau Invitational surf meet was called, a crowd on the beach at Waimea Bay watched the crowd in the water: wannabes as well as the invitees tuning up for the contest. The surf was easily 20-plus feet Hawaiian, and one unfortunate soul, caught in the rip, was being swept inexorably towards Jump Rock and exploding white water. After trying to talk the tiring surfer to safety through oncoming sets over the blaring PA system, a lifeguard said, “Okay, Buddy, just hang on, we’re sending the ski out.” This announcement puzzled me. Launch the jet ski? How? The shorebreak alone was well over 10 feet, and closed out.

What came next was an unforgettable sight: Fifty-five-year-old Mark Dombroski astride the Rescue 3 jet ski on a wheeled dolly at the top of the steep sand berm, eyeing sets with a calculus that only comes with more than 30 years of North Shore rescue experience. At his say-so, six other lifeguards, three on each side, grabbed the dolly and ran full tilt down the beach. The jet ski hit the water at full throttle. The dolly was spit back onto the sand by the shore break. Dombroski raced to clear the impact zone. The second wave of the set built to a horrifying 15-foot face and began cresting. The jet ski was nearly vertical when Dombroski (barely) cleared the lip. He zipped left to the surfer in distress, hauled him back into the safety of the lineup, and blasted the rescue craft back up onto the shore like it was a walk in the park.

Fit for the job

Waimea, Sunset, Pipeline: All the great North Shore winter breaks are in a league of their own, not to be attempted by the non-expert. But any break in Hawaii can turn life-threatening in a snap. If you were caught, say, in the “rinse cycle” in eight-foot surf at Makapuu, you’d want your lifeguard to be one of the best watermen Hawaii can offer. You’d want someone like Honolulu Ocean Safety Lieutenant Tony Ho to come to your rescue. Ho has run 1,000 yards, swum 1,000 yards, paddled a rescue board 400 yards, run and swum another 200 yards, and then run 100 more, all under the pressure of a ticking stopwatch. He’s done this 32 times. Why? Because Hawaii lifeguards must pass this physical recertification test every year, as well as if they’ve gone off-duty for more than 30 days (for injury, vacation, etc.). So, in addition to once each year since he joined the department in 1984, Ho has retested after recuperating from each of his six orthopedic surgeries. The 55-year-old waves off the suggestion that being tested so many times is unreasonable. “That minimum level of fitness is your job. You should be able to pass that recertification test any day.”

Asked if the time standard for recertification varies by age, North Shore Acting Captain John Hoogsteden laughs. “Nope, no breaks for old timers!” he says. “If you’re caught in the rip at Waimea, you don’t care if the lifeguard is 20 or 50. All that matters is that he can make the rescue.” As if to prove Ho and Hoogsteden right, 59-year-old South Shore Acting Lieutenant Bill Goding smoked the 1,000 yard beach run/1,000 yard swim in a blistering 15 minutes, 45 seconds this year.


Based on physical demands alone, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ocean Safety loses many talented young and mid-career lifeguards to the Fire Department, which offers better starting pay and advancement opportunities for what, some argue, is an easier job. For lifeguards, “The job is extremely demanding. It’s not about sitting in the tower,” waterman Brian Keaulana attests. “Lifeguards have to be vigilant, in shape and physically ready to respond at all times. When I was Captain on the West Side, I made crews rotate so that one guy was in the water on patrol at all times. That way, everyone maintains fitness, becomes known to the community, and is maa (accustomed) to ocean conditions.”

Tough as it is to be a lifeguard on the beach, the office-based Ocean Safety supervisors face their own set of challenges. Notably, Oahu Ocean Safety is only authorized for 155 full-time employees but “at any given time, we need 110 people on duty to cover 33 stations and 16 mobile patrols,” says Ocean Safety Division Chief Jim Howe. “With vacations, illnesses, injuries, personal leave, etc., we can’t cover those 110 slots with 155 full-timers and virtually no overtime budget. We can only cover our schedule because we have 90 contract (part-time) people,” Howe explains. “Neither HFD nor HPD uses contract workers this way. Our turnover is very high for these part-time guys, about 50 percent per year.”

The job of fireman has time-honored allure, according to Honolulu Fire Department Captain Gary Lum: “All boys dream of becoming one of three things: an astronaut, a cowboy and a fireman.” The numbers prove he’s not far off: When HFD offers its written exam, once every 30 months, more than 5,000 applicants take the test. By contrast, Ocean Safety’s recruit classes typically have 30 applicants per year, with just 20 recruits passing all of the tests and challenges required to earn a part-time position.

Training day

To understand the comparatively low applicant rate, ask yourself how many people would attempt the following recruit class challenges, which Chief Howe says are “designed to see what makes their ‘eyes get big’ and to make them comfortable with a realistic variety of rescue conditions. Our goal is to eliminate fear.”

Hanauma Bay Circuit: Swim from shore to Witches Brew, climb out of water onto ledge, jump off ledge, swim across mouth of bay to Toilet Bowl, climb out onto ledge on that side.

Lanai Lookout Jump: Jump off 15-foot elevation into 10-foot-wide cove with rough water and shallow rocks, swim out into open ocean. Swim down coast to “exit cove” with current and breaking waves.

Waimea Shore Break: Various shore break rescues (with board, fins, C-spine and unconscious victims) at Waimea or wherever the North Shore surf is at least 6-foot face and up to 20-foot face.

North Shore Reef Break: Rescues in high surf and off shore conditions at Ehukai/Pipeline with fins and tube and with 12-foot rescue board.

The Moi Hole: Jump into wave impact area from 25-foot-high outcropping near Kaena Point, enter Moi Hole sea cave and swim 40 feet back into rear of cave, observe entrance open and close with oncoming waves, time a safe exit.

Despite the rigor of these challenges, the physical requirements are just the beginning of the hazards a career waterman has to navigate. Beyond the constant recertification tests, the financial burdens placed on ocean safety officers, compared with the benefits provided to firemen, make it very difficult to recruit and retain competent professionals.

Unions: fire vs. water

On Oahu, while firemen are employed by the Honolulu Fire Deparment (HFD), the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services is a division of the City and County Emergency Services Department, which also includes ambulance workers. On Kauai and Maui, ocean safety and the fire departments are merged. The firemen and watermen, however, belong to different unions. And when it comes to earning a livelihood–surviving day to day–an ocean safety job falls far short of the level at which comparable rescue services are compensated.

Surprisingly, firefighters–lifeguards’ brethren first responders–have no annual physical requalification. Firefighters pass their rigorous physical tests only once, when they’re hired. Firefighters are members of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) union. The state’s 400 lifeguards are members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA)’s 12,600 member Unit 3 (administrative workers).

Perhaps the worst rip current every lifeguard must swim through is years of low pay and no benefits followed by a career of increasing pay inequities with brethren first responders.

The minimum starting annual salary for a fireman is $48,324. For a full-time lifeguard it is $33,756. But because full-time positions are limited, all lifeguards are initially hired to work as part-time contract employees. Most work in this status for at least two years (without benefits or medical coverage). It can take as long as seven years to earn a full-time position and a living wage.

The discrepancies between fire and ocean safety career tracks only grow from there. On Oahu, a lifeguard Captain’s responsibilities encompass a quarter of Oahu’s littoral geography and supervision of about 50 district employees. His or her annual gross salary will max out at $65,784. A fire Captain oversees a “company” of four firefighters assigned to an engine or ladder. The top end of his annual salary of $86,988 is more than $20,000 higher than that of his ocean safety counterpart.

At the senior level, HFD’s 22 Battalion Chiefs oversee an average force of 60 firefighters and 20 percent of Oahu’s geography for a maximum annual salary of $124,644. Ocean Safety’s one Chief oversees 250 employees islandwide for a maximum salary of $79,992.

More work for less pay

The problem,” says emergency medicine physician Monty Downs, is that “40 years ago, when I started my practice on Kauai, being a lifeguard meant taking your lunchbox to the tower, sitting there, watching for trouble and going home at the end of the day. But I kept seeing the same tragedy unfolding in the ER, with drownings as the number one cause of traumatic deaths among visitors. So I started advocating for the lifeguards to do more.”

Dr. Downs’ crusade for improved ocean safety has yielded results. “Forty years later,” he says, “lifeguards have dramatically elevated their training standards, coverage of the island, use of technical equipment like jet skis, the number of professionals on the beaches and scope of work. But that huge increase in responsibilities and abilities has not been matched by compensation.”

Kalani Vierra, operations chief for the Kauai Fire Department Ocean Safety Bureau, is quick to point out that their merger with the Kauai Fire Department in 2000 resulted in key improvements. “We got better equipment, more staffing, a higher level of training, those were the good things. But the pay scales and unions stayed separate. So over the last few years while we had pay cuts and furloughs, the fire department had no furloughs and continued to get pay raises. We work side by side with fire, and there’s a lot of mutual respect with those guys. They back us up on this (new bargaining unit). It’s just unfortunate that because we are not in the same union, these big pay differences will persist.”

Like their Kauai brethren, the Hawaii and Maui County lifeguards started out in Parks and Recreation and subsequently merged with their county fire departments. On Maui, a November ballot referendum has just cleared the way for their lifeguards to join the fire department. Why not merge Honolulu Fire with Ocean Safety as well? It’s a good question that’s been asked more than once.

Merger in 2013?

In the interests of operational efficiency and cost saving, in 2011 the City commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of a merger of Emergency Services (Ambulance and Lifeguards) with HFD. A merger seems logical, but issues including separate unions, job requirements and pay scales would not be resolved simply by combining fire and water. Maui Operations Supervisor Archie Kalepa, a 30-year waterman, puts it this way: “The ocean is an uncontrolled environment. When our guys go to work it’s the equivalent of a firefighter walking into a burning house every day. Getting the charter amendment passed and joining Fire is a first step toward being recognized as public safety professionals. But we still need a new bargaining unit to standardize things, unify ocean safety and advance the profession across all the islands.”

Here in Honolulu, Emergency Services Director Jim Ireland, M.D., further worries about the impact merging with fire would have on service delivery. “Ocean Safety is the best at what they do and the same goes for the Honolulu Fire Department. With any merger there is a risk of diluting an agency, potentially jeopardizing the public’s safety. So the possible implications would need to be carefully looked at,” Ireland says.

Union politics being what they are, it’s virtually impossible to cross over into other unions, be it IAFF, UPW or SHOPO. A solution must be sought within HGEA.

Keaulana describes the long struggle for better advocacy, “When I was working as Captain on the West Side, Melvin Puu, Dennis Gouveia and I had to write up the program and actually go to court to advocate for the use of jet skis for rescues. Ocean safety needs to change their union. They are in the same unit as the secretaries. Look at Fire and Police. Their unions are tuned into the specific concerns and needs of those departments. Right now, lifeguard concerns are mixed into a big ball with other priorities of totally unrelated professionals,” Keaulana says. Take his own example: “To be honest, if we had had our own bargaining unit and the compensation and advancement opportunities that Fire has, I’d probably still be with the lifeguards. But I saw there was no chance for me to grow. I’m still very active with the department’s training program and when you get great watermen or women, you want to keep them. If we don’t solve this problem and take better care of lifeguards, we will continue to lose people to Fire, jobs on the mainland, tug boat captain, whatever,” Keaulana says.

Asked if he’d ever considered joining the exodus to HFD, Tony Ho, the 26-year East Side veteran, replied without hesitation, “No. I’ve done other things in my life, run businesses and stuff but I always ended up going back to the water. Obviously the people who stick with this job are not in it for the money. It’s the satisfaction of saving people and the waterman’s lifestyle. There’s no amount of money that can pay you for that. Still,” Ho reflects, “last year, when we went down to the Capitol to lobby for the creation of our own bargaining unit, I met so many legislators who didn’t even realize we weren’t already in our own union, or with Fire, or that we were with the secretaries in Unit 3. They didn’t even know what we did or what our job requires. It really boiled down to an education effort. Hopefully, as more people become aware of what it takes to be a lifeguard they’ll see that we really need to change things.”

The 2013 Legislative session will mark the third attempt to create a separate unit for the lifeguards. A compromise stance with HGEA leadership may require the sheriffs and DLNR’s conservation enforcement officers (DOCARE) to join Ocean Safety in a new but broader “public safety” unit.

Chief Howe puts it simply: “Our lifeguards are out there protecting Hawaii’s people and visitors every day. They’ve earned this. This is not a want. It’s a need. It is a change we need to have to keep doing our jobs at the highest level. Ocean Safety is a critical health and safety service and needs to recognized as a viable career path for professionals.” He means our health and safety. For voters, 2013 would be a good time to contact our legislative reps and show some lifeguard love.