Honolulu Eyes Creating New Department of Ocean Safety

April 8, 2024
Currently, the Lifeguard and Ocean Safety Division is under Honolulu Emergency Medical Services.

Apr. 6—After sifting through that data, the task force emerged with its final recommendation.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi's vow to create a new city Department of Ocean Safety began with a task force.

Set up in 2023, the Ocean Safety Task Force—composed of about a dozen current and former city and county lifeguards as well as city employees from the departments of Budget and Fiscal Services, Human Resources, Honolulu Emergency Services and legal advisors from Corporation Counsel—met 11 times between July and January.

By March, the group completed its 78-page report.

"The OST's mission was to fact-find, research, and provide a recommendation whether the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department should remain a division of the HESD or become its own standalone executive department and how this might be done, " the report states. "The OST accomplished this by reviewing historical and current data."

After sifting through that data, the task force emerged with its final recommendation. " The Ocean Safety Task Force unanimously recommends that the Ocean Safety Division of HESD should be its own standalone department in the City and County of Honolulu, " the report states.

"OSD has a fundamentally different core mission and operation than EMS, " the report notes. "The responsibility for saving lives of residents and visitors who access Oahu's beaches, shorelines and open waters means there should be a structurally separate and equal leadership and management for OSD.

"This department can advocate and manage its personnel and budget within the city's organizational structure. The Task Force believes that it is incumbent on the city to have a standalone department to expand services and direct responsibility of its management, training, supervision, and discipline of its personnel as do other executive departments, " the report states.

Amongst the data scrutinized, the report highlights the number of ocean drownings on Oahu, which it says fluctuates between 33 to 46 a year.

From 2013 to 2022, a total of 388 ocean drownings occurred on Oahu, or an average of about 43 ocean drownings annually. In 2022, 39 reported ocean drownings on Oahu occurred, while a total of 33 were reported in 2013. Of the total number of drownings, about 56 %—or 218—were Hawaii residents, while the remainder—170, or 44 %—were nonresidents, the task force report states.

As for the necessity for a new city department of lifeguards and with regard to questions over ocean drownings remaining roughly same year-over-year for a decade on Oahu, the Mayor's Office said it was time to improve city operations.

"The fact that ocean drownings are relatively flat supports our desire to ramp up service in light of 'dawn to dusk' (extended ) coverage, more beaches and near-shore waters being frequented by tourists and locals, and changing climate conditions, " Scott Humber, the mayor's communications director, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Further, the city's priority is not to stabilize the number of drownings on Oahu, but rather reduce the number of drownings in near-shore waters on Oahu."

To do so, Humber said "having an Ocean Safety Department will allow its chief, deputy chief and first responders to singularly focus on the safety of our near shore waters and beaches."

"This singular focus and attention, we believe, including a focus on ocean safety infrastructure around the island, will translate into a better service for the public, " Humber said.

The task force report also asserts the leading cause of death among Hawaii children ages 1 to 15 years old is by drowning. From 2018 to 2022, 24 fatal drownings occurred across Hawaii—12 in swimming pools, and 10 in the ocean, the report indicates. During that same four-year period, youth drownings accounted for 12 % of overall deaths among that age group, versus 9 % of children here who die due to cancer and 7 % by suicide, the report states.

According to the city, the estimated cost to set up and run a new Ocean Safety sector will be about $1.4 million a year.

Currently, OSD—the city's primary first responder agency for emergencies at island beaches and in near-shore waters out to one mile—boasts 3, 000 water rescues annually. For fiscal year 2024, OSD's budget is over $20.79 million.

The fringe costs for the division—namely pensions, unemployment compensation and retiree medical health insurance benefits—is $11.6 million. This is 35 % of the entire HESD budget and 4 % of the entire public safety budget, which includes Honolulu's fire and police departments as well as HESD, the report states.

For reference, EMS has a budget of about $29.3 million and fringe costs are $16.4 million. This is 58 % of HESD's department budget and 7 % of the entire public safety budget, the report states.

Creation of a new department may include up to 11 new positions including a director, a deputy director, two private secretaries, a safety specialist, an information specialist, an administrative services officer, a planner, a secretary-reporter, a data processing systems analyst, and a personnel clerk, the report states.

To fund positions, the estimated cost is $929, 148 in salaries, with a fringe-benefits cost of $520, 415. The anticipated total additional increase is over $1.5 million to support these new positions, the report states.

In fiscal year 2024, the OSD had 265 full-time equivalent positions and 73 contracts.

The OSD identifies that 325 total positions within its organization will allow for maintaining the requirements of the Council mandated "dawn to dusk " program that started in 2021, which has lifeguards stay and work later on Oahu's beaches.

At his March 14 State of the City address, Blangiardi pledged to work with the City Council on a resolution Council member Andria Tupola recently introduced to bring about a voter-approved charter amendment to found the new Ocean Safety department. Known as Resolution 50, Tupola's legislation urges Honolulu's lifeguard and paramedic services be broken up to create the new Ocean Safety department.

To that end, the resolution requests language be placed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, offering this question to voters : "Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish a Department of Ocean Safety and remove ocean safety responsibilities from the Department of Emergency Services ?"

If adopted, the resolution calls for a "board, creating accountability and oversight similar to that provided by the city's Fire Commission and Police Commission over the city's other public safety departments, the Honolulu Fire Department and Honolulu Police Department."

According to the city, creating a new department via a voter-led charter amendment or by executive action are still to be determined.

"The answer to this question depends on whether the reorganization is pursuant to the mayor's powers of reorganization under the Charter or pursuant to a charter amendment, " Humber said. "The former would take us to FY26 ( July 2025 ), the latter would probably take us until December 2025 or thereafter."

But the reorganization has fielded critics.

During the Council's Committee on Budget meeting March 5, Council member Calvin Say noted that about four years ago the city administration approached the Council "requesting a new department, a Department of Housing, " which never materialized.

"It's not that easy to create a department, " Say said.

And he added the task force should have included representatives from the Office of the City Auditor, the city's watchdog agency that independently investigates work done by the city and its officials.

For the same meeting, Oahu resident Natalie Iwasa submitted written testimony asserting the creation of a new city department would be too costly for taxpayers.

"Please vote 'no' on this proposed charter amendment and instead work toward making government more efficient and less costly, " she wrote, in part.


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