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Hawai‘i Lifeguards: Risking Theirs to Save Yours

By Mara Pyzel

Hawai‘i’s 1,052 miles of pristine coastline attracts residents and visitors alike, soaking up the sun, sand, and turquoise waters. However, a day in paradise can become perilous in an instant. The watchful eyes of the City & County of Honolulu Ocean Safety allow us to revel in long days of worry-free surfing, sailing, and snorkeling. These highly capable watermen can save the day at a moment’s notice, and have committed countless hours of personal and professional time readying themselves for any challenge that may come their way. Encompassing both mental and physical preparedness, the time they invest in conditioning improves the steadfast alertness, seamless communication, and extensive knowledge of the ocean is the core of each successful rescue. The rescues we witness from the beach represent just a fragment of the effort these dedicated individuals invest in keeping us safe… We dive in to this respectable career for our latest Pau Hana feature.

The safety of beachgoers starts with awareness. From educational brochures in the airport, to a daily presence on social media, Ocean Safety is making a concerted effort to educate the public before we are even suited up. With an entire division dedicated to communications, these preventative measures range from common-sense reminders (such as jellyfish) to near-invisible dangers (like strong currents). Through a digital presence, the public can receive updates about everything from beach closures to shark attacks to missing vessels. This real-time social media blitz proved successful this February when, during a bout of extreme wind, heavy rain, and powerful ocean surge, lifeguards took to Instagram, Facebook, and local news sources cautioning the public to stay away from coastal areas.

“The winds got too strong so we had to shut down some of the towers for a little while. Our own lifeguards’ safety is first and foremost, but we try to let the public know that that’s what’s happening,” stated Captain of Communications, Kurt Lager. With no major incidents occurring during this period of concern, the proactivity of Ocean Safety proved to be worthwhile.

Regardless of the positive outcome of these heavy conditions, the guards had nonetheless been ready for anything. With individual prep routines ranging from checking the surf report to a quick convo with coworkers the night before, a lifeguard’s work day extends far beyond the confines of their shift hours. Describing his continuously watchful eye, jet ski operator Kirk Ziegler said, “I bring my job with me all the time. When I go to the beach on my days off, I’m still vigilant,” because, as he cautioned, “Life’s good; the day is wonderful and then Boom! something happens.” It can turn 180 degrees instantaneously, an unfortunate daily reality for ocean safety officers. When anticipating a turbulent day, guards will go in early, allotting themselves time to strategize with each other and assess conditions firsthand. It is here at the beach where tower guards like Tau Hannemann serve as the next line of defense for public safety.

Mike Jutt and Kirk Ziegler Photo: gOnzo

Tau Hannemann

City & County of Honolulu Ocean Safety Officer, East Side & North Shore
Years on the job: 16 years
Job description: Providing nonstop surveillance of their surroundings, tower guards are often the first to someone in distress. Monitoring the coast by land (ATV), sea (rescue board) and sight, tower guards also take preventative action by posting warning signs about currents and other ocean hazards. They answer questions and offer advice about the day’s conditions. They will approach beach-goers who look unsure about the conditions. Hannemann recalls a day when they made about thirteen water rescues, but estimates they prevented between 40-60 rescues by simply talking to people.

“We always try to accommodate them. They’ve come a long way and they want to get in the ocean,” Hanneman says of Oahu visitors.

Workday Preparation: Before each work day Hannemann familiarizes himself with the conditions and currents of the day: “Even when there’s no surfers out and it’s stormy I’ll take the rescue board, my fins, and my rescue tube and try to punch through the surf just for training. Sometimes I’ll end up dodging the board but I’ll continue out swimming with the tube and just get a feel for what’s out there. That gives me peace of mind so that when it does get smaller and there’s people surfing, I have already gone out when it is really big so that […] I am more comfortable making those rescues.” Even on his days off, he remains alert: “I always stay aware of big swells coming in […] On my days off, I’ll look at the surf during the previous day before I’m going to come back so I know what to expect. I look at all-around weather conditions; if it’s stormy and onshore, then often times the beaches will be less crowded. So if we have a lot of winds we know the beach activity is going to be small with less people coming to the beach.” While ocean safety officers have their own independent routines for updating themselves on daily conditions and mental preparation for each workday, they are constantly in touch with the ocean’s activity prior to their shift, closely monitoring the tides, winds, and currents during the course of their workday.
Ocean Advice: “80% of it is vigilance and 20% is going out there and performing a successful rescue. For the most part, you want to stay constantly vigilant,” Hannemann shared, a lesson applicable to all ocean-goers.

When the conditions of a situation extend beyond the support of the tower, dispatch will launch their jet ski units. The ski is launched either in response to a 911 call as additional tower support, or as a precautionary measure in more challenging conditions (think macking Pipe or epic Waimea). Kirk Ziegler is part of the jet ski unit that launches out of the North Shore.

Kirk Ziegler

Jet Ski Operator, North Shore
Years on the job: 13 years
Job description: Calls from the public can end up being anything from a floating coconut to a distressed kayaker. “We get very limited information coming from a caller who may or may not know the ocean, so we’re often going in blind,” explains Ziegler. “Yet, that’s part of our training. Most of the time, though, ski operators work in pairs and will launch on heavy mornings to monitor the lineup; they offer assistance when necessary.” When in action, the team is able to quickly reach a distressed person and load them onto the ski sled, removing them from harm’s way. Once accomplished, they swiftly get them to the safety of the beach.

Workday Prep: “We discuss with our partner what we need to do for the day; if it’s some maintenance work or some office work, or a workout or checking out the towers… Then we’ll discuss what we need to do first. During the winter when there’s huge surf and 15 foot Pipe and Waimea is breaking and everyone’s out, I’ll call my partner the night before and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think, man? How are we going to do this?’ We usually show up early on those days to prep the ski and everything else early. We’ll launch around 8 or 8:30 and be in the water all day long.” Communication on these days is crucial: “You’re always just checking with your partner, checking with your lieutenant, and checking with the busy towers so that it’s all cohesive.”
Ocean Advice: Ziegler notes that social media and dangerous surf don’t mix. “It’s all about the photo, which doesn’t help us out. If you want to go and be a part of it, come to us. Come talk to us. We’ll give you a report and an update. Don’t just walk out on the rocks at Sharks Cove to get a picture. Nobody wants to drag an unconscious person out of the water when you could just go up and talk to them.”

Throughout the course of the day, both the tower and the ski maintain contact with dispatch where guys like Kurt Lager ensure the flow of communication is clear, concise, and as accurate as possible. This stream of communication is vital in order to help responders become acquainted with a situation as soon as possible, before even reaching the scene. External information is shared with a Public Information Officer who maintains communication with us, the curious public.

Kurt Lager

Captain of Communication Unit & Operations Support

Years on the job: 14 years

Kurt Lager photo:gOnzo

Job description: Based out of offices near Diamond Head, these folks clock ten-hour shifts following daylight hours. Dispatch and Public Relations form the epicenter of communication between lifeguard personnel, emergency services, and the public. They maintain a strong social and news media presence. This includes press conferences like the one held in February in which Lager and Mayor Kirk Caldwell spoke with news outlets regarding safety concerns during the peak of the storm’s volatile seas and treacherous winds. They also collaborate as needed with Civil Defense, the Governor’s office, and the National Weather Service ensuring a uniform understanding remains of the who, what, when, and where.
Workday prep: Lager is a proponent of a good night’s sleep and problem solving ahead of time: “I like to tell our guys to plan out the day as if we know we’re going to be busy,” says Lager. “There’s a lot of distractions with phones and places people need to go and things to do, so I tell them to take care of things ahead of time so that when they come in to work, it’s just time for work.”
Ocean Advice: Lager encourages beachgoers to download the HNL Info app to receive up-to-date intel about conditions. “We want everyone to have fun and get out there and enjoy everything that the ocean and beaches have to offer, but we want everyone to be safe,” he stated, adding, “If you have any doubts, just talk to one of the lifeguards.”

Sacrificing personal time and risking their own lives, the watermen and women who make up the lifeguards of Hawai‘i have made the security of others their main priority. They keep an eye out for one another, too.

“It’s a family; it’s a brotherhood,” explains Ziegler. “When you are in stressful situations with people who have your back and are there for you and alongside you, you grow together more than you can imagine.” As each day without injury or fatality goes by, their hard work and extra hours can start to be taken for granted by those of us benefiting from it. They are the unsung heroes, with jobs that become a lifestyle and encompasses so much more than many of us know. “We come from the same breed; we all love the ocean and enjoy everything the ocean has to offer from surfing to diving to paddling etc. So it makes it easy for us to get along as we all love our job. We want to help people, and thrive off of that energy,” said Lager. So, next time the ATV rides by you, flash a smile and throw a shaka—these guys deserve it.

Tau Hannemann photo: gOnzo

In order to further support the lifeguard association 501(c)3 and affiliated programs like the Junior Lifeguard program, please log on to www.hawaiianlifeguardassociation.com