Hawaii Aquatics Safety Leadership Conference 2023

The Hawaii Aquatics Safety Leadership Conference convened leaders from all over the state to address the drowning epidemic and form a statewide water safety coalition.

October 3, 2023

One hundred leaders from sixty water safety, swim education, local and state government departments, military contractors, and private school organizations convened on August 17, 2023 in Waikiki to reunite the water safety community to address the drowning epidemic in Hawaii. 

Galanis from the Hawaii Department of Health laid out the current statistics:

  • Hawaii has the second highest drowning rate for residents in the nation
  • Drowning is now the leading cause of death of Hawaii children age 1-16
  • Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death for tourists      

Sarah Fairchild of ODKF reported that nationally and locally there is a high correlation of poverty and lack of basic swim skills, and that minorities die from drowning at higher rates than Caucasians. Jessamy Town Hornor, Allison Schaefers, and Shirley De Rego shared their families’ stories and demonstrated the power of bereaved parents as advocates. Tom Farrey and Brittney Markwith recapped ideas from the State of Play Report for Hawaii which was funded by Liliuokalani Trust and administered by the Aspen Institute. Matt Kauwe and Bill Pratt shared Na Kama Kai’s culturally based ocean safety programs. Senator Glenn Wakai gave an overview of the state legislative process. Ron Bregman reported on the recently published U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan. Every organization present had the opportunity to share its mission.

The conference resulted in the establishment of four volunteer working groups to work on the following goals:

  • Writing of a Statewide Water Safety Action Plan
  • Campaign to include swim and water safety instruction in schools
  • Design and promotion of a drowning prevention media campaign
  • Lobbying and seeking large-scale funding for drowning reduction      

The conference also commenced the formation of the Hawaii Water Safety Coalition, an inclusive association formed to work on the drowning issue. The group is seeking funding for the coalition to hire an administrator to manage the working groups and provide continuity for the energy of projects and progress.

Conference attendees also brainstormed ideas for change and shared good ideas already in use. The ideas listed below will be considered for inclusion in the Hawaii Water Safety Action Plan.

Barriers, Entrapment & Electrical Safety

Ideas and ideals:
  • Delegate responsibility to a specific state agency to address calls about unfenced pools and other water hazards. Publish phone number and website for the public to report to. 
  • Install warning signs around retention ponds. 
  • Require annual inspections of drainage ponds.
  • Install Public more reminders/signs - AED, First aid, 911 steps, safety equipment, with a QR code to a safety website, change name to water marshal.

Data and Public Health Surveillance

Ideas and Ideals:
  • Statewide Action Plan on drowning prevention
  • DOH hires Drowning Prevention Coordinator and liaisons with coalition
  • Improved collaboration across agencies and data collection protocol
  • Establishment of a surf commission of Hawaii
  • A statewide app that provides safety info including maps, hazards, weather, past deaths, etc. about beaches, hikes and other public areas
  • Sharing and sourcing of insurance for water sports classes and groups outside of schools
  • Creation of a format where all interested groups, agencies, etc, can communicate, connect and coordinate their efforts toward water safety
Good ideas already in use:
  • WHO 10-year action plan on drowning prevention
  • Weather ambassador program  - email list receives notifications on hazardous weather like
  • WatchTower app - distributes real time information about beach safety with inputs from lifeguard iPads, already in use in much of Kauai, and at Hanauma Bay on Oahu

Life Jackets, PFDs and other Flotation Devices

Ideas and Ideals:
  • Free lifejacket sharing stations especially in busy, unguarded areas like Ko’olina
  • Change the culture so more adults wear lifejackets on standups and kayaks
  • Parent education on when and how to use with children
Good ideas already in use:
  • Rescue tube stations in various areas near water for bystander usage

Lifeguards and Supervision:

Ideas and Ideals:
  • Make the Division of Ocean Safety under EMS an independent city and county department in Honolulu. The department head should be hired by a commission, rather than appointed by a mayor. 
  • More signage in unguarded hotel pools such as “do not leave children alone around water.”
  • Utilize kids 16+ to help recruit and teach junior lifeguards (Maui lifeguard)
  • Lifeguard towers needed, such as in Black Rock area on Maui
  • More jetskis, such as for Hawaii Island to cover the larger area
  • Year round junior lifeguarding connected to or working in conjunction with schools
  • Teach lifeguarding classes in high schools for credit. (already being done in Nebraska) 
  • Offer free/reimbursed lifeguard training at high schools near rec center pools with a streamlined direct hire process to help with lifeguard shortage. (YMCA model)
  • Ensure that all lifeguard certifications are authenticated as the current American Red Cross system is prone to falsification
Good ideas already in use:
  • Punahou already has swim lessons as part of the PE curriculum and is willing to share lesson plans with other interested schools. (Note: At least Kamehameha and Le Jardin also teach swimming as a major part of the PE program)
  • There will be a fall 2023 junior lifeguard program on five areas of the island of Oahu to reach more kids.. No child will be turned away and community volunteers will be utilized to accomplish this.
  • Extended lifeguard hours, 8am-6:30pm in the City & County of Honolulu. Lifeguards can work a 4-10s schedule reenergizing their ability to do their jobs with greater attentiveness
  • Increase in the number of lifeguards and a chief position on the island of Hawaii
  • First ever new Build Facility at Alala Point on Oahu

Water Safety, Water Competency, and Swimming Lessons

Ideas and Ideals:
  • Ask military pools to offer pool time to community swim groups, or to open their unfilled swim classes to the public (from the State of Play)
  • Increase aquatic-based middle and high schools sports. Surfing for example reinforces swim skills and water safety 
  • Water safety, including snorkeling, PSA mandatory on planes incoming to Hawaii. PSA should include taking care of people in general, watch out for each other with aloha, be maka’ala
  • Reconvene Act 190 Task Force, update water hazard signage in critical areas, and have protocol for conditions-based closures like at Makapu’u TIdepools (HEMA), join forces with the app project
  • Cognitive aquatic safety skills including open and closed water, and ponds, floods, streams, “throw don’t go” and “ask an adult” etc. curriculum should be taught in elementary schools.
  • Build more public pools
  • County pools should offer more programs and more pool time . They should train and hire more people (lifeguards, swim teachers, coaches). Coordinate with community education / outreach messaging
  • County pools should engage in more partnerships with private swim schools and private teams (swimming, water polo, and other sports) to promote water skill building for the public
  • Use portable pools at schools to teach swimming lessons
  • Expand surfing teams in high schools so that kids are required to pass swim tests and learn water safety. More Surf clubs could offer mentors and help build swim and water safety skills
  • More ocean safety and conservation curriculum in the DOE
  • Engage the medical community for advocacy and partnerships: prevention and treatment. Lectures on medical students, residents, physicians, nurses on aquatic safety, grand rounds, AAP Hawaii
  • Increase ocean safety technician training. Program used to exist at Windward Community College. Content would be similar to junior lifeguard training but geared towards adults, there is a whole curriculum
  • Childrens hospitals and pediatricians should provide more training to parents about supervision around water, CPR and other drowning prevention, like they do with carseats and sleep safety
  • Water Watcher Card for all,
Good ideas already in use:
  • The Alex & Duke De Rego Foundation currently provides Water Safety & Ocean Awareness Education to 6th grade students on Hawaii Island.  They are entering into their 6th year.  They have a curriculum that was completed in early August to be presented to the DOE.
  • Swim Lessons Hawaii offering lessons that combine competitive + Navy swimming. They also offer free swimming classes to underprivileged communities. (Currently there is a barrier with Kalihi community pool not allowing a private organization.)
  • KAI - Ocean safety acronym by Nā Kama Kai. Know your limits. Ask a lifeguard. Identify a hazard
  • Nā Kama Kai has been awarded a Grants In Aid two years in a row to develop an ocean safety curriculum that DOE teachers can decide to use in their elementary school classrooms
  • Nā Kama Kai is using the strengths of Hawaiian culture and heritage to teach ocean safety
  • Nā Kama Kai and Leahi Swim School used PVC pipe frames to create “pools” in shallow, calm ocean water to teach swimming class. Swim Lesson Hawaii uses lane ropes in a similar way
  • Hawaii Aquatics Foundation developed a curriculum and in-school model in line with national health and physical education standards to teach basic aquatic safety skills in elementary schools. This model needs state funding (it is currently on pause). Other states are looking at this curriculum and model. In-school lessons are the gold standard for truly equitable model of offering these lifetime skills to ALL students
  • Freedive Safe Hawaii teaches free freedive safety courses to local teens, the population most likely to drown while spearfishing
  • and American Red Cross offer education on pool and ocean safety.
  • The American Red Cross has launched a national Centennial Campaign to increase aquatic skills and reduce drowning. They are looking to engage with more partners


The conference was hosted by the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation (ODKF) and the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, in partnership with the Duke Kahanamoku Ocean Festival. Outrigger Resorts & Hotels, Duke’s Waikiki, and Ama OluKai were conference sponsors. ODKF sponsored an at-home screening event of the recent documentary, Drowning in Silence, for conference attendees. The documentary is also available on AppleTV. 

For more information, to add an idea to the list, or to get involved in the working groups, please email


Back to News

blue arrow pointing to the right