North Shore Lifeguard Kaiwi Berry. Photo: Glaser
North Shore Lifeguard Kaiwi Berry. Photo: Glaser

Hawaiian Lifeguards In Peril

Our world-class watermen are now the ones who need saving

You've taken a two-wave set on the head at Pipeline, cracking your head on the reef in the process. You come up dizzy, disoriented; your legs are numb and you can't make it into the beach. There's a warm current of blood spouting from your forehead and you are struggling to stay afloat. Clutching your board, you scream for help. Miraculously, a local lifeguard reaches you amidst the maelstrom of explosive closeouts and dry reef. He stabilizes your neck with his red buoy and totes you to shore.

Anyone who surfs the North Shore of Oahu has a world-class group of watermen surveying the lineup, making sure that everyone survives their session in one piece. These lifesavers possess a level of knowledge and preparedness rivaling that of top emergency professionals in the world. Their skills are invaluable to everyone, from Kelly Slater to your cousin Vern from Ohio who waded out too deep playing in the shorepound.

Despite the importance of lifeguards to the community, the Hawaiian Association of Justice recently nullified and replaced language of Senate Bill 562, which had protected Hawaiian lifeguards from being sued on the job since 2002. These recent amendments will put almost every lifeguard in Hawaii at risk of personal lawsuits in a workplace where variables among powerful open-ocean swells change every second. Some personal injury lawyers surrounding the case claim that opening up the door for more lawsuits will make the public safer. Some have even noted that Hawaiian lifeguards perform at a ‘substandard level.’

But there's the rub. Lifeguards in Hawaii are usually the first responders to an aquatic emergency, and save thousands of lives a year. For every proficient daredevil at Sunset Beach, there are at least three or four people who do not belong out there, and could possible require a rescue and other life-saving techniques. Drownings are the leading cause of death in Hawaii, and visitors make up roughly half these drownings. Bryan Phillips, President of the North Shore Lifeguards Association, sees the issue plainly and simply.

"The ocean, our workplace, is one of the most challenging, dangerous, and dynamic places to work in the world. Ocean and beach conditions can change in the blink of an eye, and we have to react quickly to keep beachgoers in and around the ocean safe. We are trained to first warn people of dangers and rescue them when they get into trouble. For us, this isn't black or white, which is why lawyers and lawmakers are seeking for a way to change the law".

In 2015, lifeguards rushed to treat Evan Geiselman after a frightening wipeout at Pipeline. Photo: Ellis

Lifeguards in Hawaii have been rightfully protected from lawsuits for years if things get ugly, and now, if the amendment goes through, many of them might be prompted to rethink their profession. In turn, the waters of Hawaii will become even more dangerous than they already are, and that drowning rate will likely increase. Also, more lawsuits against lifeguards and counties will cost taxpayers. "We need that money to be spent on hiring more lifeguards, equipment, and to put more stands at un-lifeguarded beaches so we can prevent more accidents or deaths," Phillips says.

Phillips says that there is a large – and not exactly clear – spectrum of negligence within the nature of lifeguarding, especially in the oftentimes chaotic conditions. There is ‘gross negligence,’ which includes something like an improper method of CPR. The ambiguity of the matter is the question of what constitutes ‘simple negligence,’ which are the cases that personal injury lawyers will stand to profit most from.

"Lawyers will capitalize on these various cases of simple negligence, which can be totally subjective. We watch radical scenarios unfold in front of our eyes every day. Lifeguards prevent, react, and respond. We will always put our lives on the line to save a complete stranger," Phillips says.

Big wave charger and long-time North Shore lifeguard Dave Wassel agrees.

"My partners and I go to work to help people,” Wassel says. “I don't understand it. If you do CPR on someone, it's covered under the Good Samaritan Act. If lifeguards do it, they can get sued personally. We're the City and County of Honolulu's cheapest insurance policy. We respond to thousands of incidents a year, saving millions in lawsuits. If lifeguards aren't backed by the city, who's next? Firemen? Police? First-responders? I really don't get it".

Phillips, like Wassel, is passionate about how his job enables him to contribute to the community he loves.

"We are lifeguards because of our pure love of the ocean and the passion we share for helping others," Phillips says. "To us, our job goes beyond what most people would classify as work, and we consider our job more of something we do based off of our commitment to the safety of others. The acts of lobbyists, lawyers, and lawmakers who seek to attack us not only attacks our work, but us personally — we take great pride in what we do. We humbly ask for the support of the public in protecting our livelihood and what we love.”

HGEA Unit 14, the union that represents the state's lifeguards, is also organizing a public rally today (Thursday, April 27) at Ala Moana Blvd and Akitson Dr, in a last-ditch effort to sway the Judicial Committee's final decision.

[Featured Image: Yes, North Shore Lifeguards charge, too. Kaiwi Berry, playing hard after a day’s shift. Photo: Glaser]