Bill seeks lifeguards for tour boats

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today The Body Glove morning snorkel tour returns to Kailua Pier on Thursday in Kailua-Kona.

KAILUA-KONA — A bill to kick off the process of requiring certified lifeguards on boats that take tourists onto the water for snorkeling and other activities is making its way through the state Legislature.

The proposal, advocates say, is critical to improving safety in a state where drowning is among the leading causes of fatal injuries, particularly among visitors. During the first half of this decade, most visitor drowning deaths happened while snorkeling, according to the state Department of Health.

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“You need to have people that are on the boat that are trained to recognize problems before they become dire emergencies,” said Keller Laros, scuba instructor at Jack’s Diving Locker and founder of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation. “And that’s where the lifeguard training comes in.”

The bill would require the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to adopt new rules for commercial operators that take customers into state waters for activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and surf lessons.

Those rules would require every excursion or tour group to have at least one person who is either a rescue diver or lifeguard certified by a nationally recognized certification organization.

That wouldn’t apply to vessels that are inspected by the Coast Guard and that have at least one crew member aboard who is lifeguard certified in CPR, use of an automated external defibrillator and basic first aid.

It also would require every vessel used to transport customers be equipped with a backboard, emergency oxygen and an AED among its onboard safety equipment.

Laros said he wants to see the wording of the bill clarified to require every vessel — uninspected or not — to have a lifeguard on board.

“It doesn’t matter — if you’re running the trips, whether you’re Coast Guard-inspected or non-inspected — you have to have at least one crew on board that is trained as a lifeguard,” he said, adding certification must also be up-to-date.

The DLNR opposed the bill in testimony submitted to the House Committee on Finance. The agency argued the Coast Guard, rather than the state, ought to be the one to implement new measures.

The Ocean Tourism Coalition, which represents more than 300 ocean tour operators throughout the state, voiced “conditional support” for the bill. While the group supports the bill’s intent, wrote coalition president James E. Coon, it also asked for some changes.

“It is very difficult to make a one-size-fits-all-rule,” wrote Coons. “They do not need additional DLNR oversight. DLNR will not issue their commercial operating permit without (Coast Guard) approval.”

The recommended changes include amending the text related to Coast Guard inspected vessels to say they must have at least one crew member on board who is trained (rather than “lifeguard-certified”) in CPR, use of an AED and basic first aid.

Maggie Brown, president and owner of Body Glove Ocean Adventure, said her business already has its own requirements that crew must meet so they’re able to respond to emergencies.

If crew isn’t hired already knowing CPR and other training, she said, the company has quarterly classes so they are able to administer CPR, use defibrillators and apply first aid should the need arise. Crew members also must be able free dive 30 feet.

And during snorkels, she said, they have two designated crew members with a rescue board, float and fins on, stationed to respond immediately.

The bill, she said, is “headed in a very good direction.”

“I think the definition of what a lifeguard is needs to be a little bit more defined,” she said, adding the cost of lifeguard certification courses could exceed what an operator can pay or limit the pool of potential hires.

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The bill crossed over to the Senate on March 1 after passing through the House and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Water and Land and the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Email Cameron Miculka at cmiculka@westhawaiitoday.com.

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