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Water Safety Coalition’s bills sent to Green

HONOLUU — Two bills initiated by a new coalition on increasing state water safety have been passed by the Legislature and are headed to the governor for his approval.

The measures — one that designates May 15 as Water Safety Day in the state each year and another that authorizes the issuance of Duke Kahanamoku license plates, with revenue from the plates being dedicated to water safety educational programs — are now on Gov. Josh Green’s desk, pending his signature.

Both bills were introduced by the Hawai‘i Water Safety Coalition, an organization of people from the government, nonprofit organizations and the community promoting water safety in the state that launched in November.

“In order to make an impact to get our drowning numbers down and our water safety competencies up, especially with our keiki, we need to come together in a multisectoral approach,” HWSC coordinator Jessamy Hornor said.

Hawai‘i has the second-­highest rate of resident drownings and the highest rate of visitor drownings in the country. Drowning is also the leading cause of death for children ages 1-15 in the state.

The formation of the coalition follows recommendations from the World Health Organization that encouraged all countries to create a national water safety plan. After the publication of the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan in 2023, HWSC was formed to advance various organizations’ collective efforts toward drowning prevention.

Hornor said the first goal of the national water safety plan is to “raise the profile of the issue” — a goal she thinks HWSC has been successful in achieving as it supported Senate Bill 2841, which established Water Safety Day in the state each May 15.

“Just based on the data, (raising awareness) should be at the top of our action list. We really had to go down and make it happen,” Hornor said. “It’s actually a very big deal that our leadership has said, ‘Yes, we want this to happen.’”

Hornor founded the advocacy group Ocean Safety ‘Ohana, one of the groups involved with HWSC, after she lost her husband and youngest daughter in an ocean accident in 2016, to represent the perspective of those who lost loved ones to the ocean. She said her continued work with HWSC is rooted in preventing future tragedies.

“I did this in memory of Mark and Mina, and I’m holding this for others that can’t be there. This work is very difficult to do, but I know there’s a lot of families that have their hearts in seeing something happen,” she said. “We know that injury prevention is very impactful, and yet it’s probably the most underresourced public health intervention that we have. The smallest investment has just profound returns.”

Before its official launch, HWSC founding organizations Outrigger Duke Kaha­namoku Foundation and Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, as well as Ocean Safety ‘Ohana, organized the Hawai‘i Water Safety Leadership Conference in August.

The passage of both Senate Bill 2841 and Senate Bill 116, which authorizes the issuance of Duke Kahanamoku license plates, proves that when people and organizations come together for a common cause, “we can really make progress,” said ODKF Executive Director Sarah Fairchild.

Fairchild said ODKF had been pushing for the issuance of Duke Kahanamoku license plates for around three years and that from the beginning the foundation had worked with the Duke Kahanamoku trademark owner on a way for the use of the trademark on the plates to support water safety. Under the measure, funds that are raised and entrusted to ODKF from the plates will be “given out in small grants to support water safety and drowning prevention,” Fairchild said.

“We’re just thrilled to have Duke’s legacy continue in this way, because he was not only one of the greatest Native Hawaiian watermen of all time, he also did care about public safety,” she said. “It’s just really meaningful to see his legacy continue in a way that it’s still helping people to this day.”

State Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake-Pearl Harbor) said that “showcasing Duke on as many cars as possible hopefully ignites conversations while on the road,” contributing to a larger goal of positioning Hawai‘i as a global hub of surfing.

“I’ve been on a mission for years to try to position Hawai‘i as the epicenter of surfing, and this is just part of that in terms of educating the public on the greatest waterman that has ever called Hawai‘i home,” Wakai said.

But Wakai said water safety is also vital to that larger mission.

“Before we go share surfing through the world, I have an expectation that people understanding it have to appreciate surfing locally, and that begins with just having some level of water safety awareness,” he said.

“I think what you’re seeing when the governor signs those two bills is a sign of things to come. There’s a wave of interest in expanding people’s appreciation for the ocean, and I think the signing of the two bills is a clear indication that that swelling of support is only going to gain momentum in the future.”

HWSC also has been working on developing a statewide water safety plan based on the National Water Safety Action Plan, as well as California’s state water safety plan, the first state water safety plan in the country.

“We’re writing a plan and adapting it to Hawai‘i because we have unique cultural history and resources, and of course, we have our oceans and waterways and our aquatic facilities and programming,” Hornor said. “We need to look at, What are our strengths and what are the areas that we need to do better?”

Fairchild said a draft of the plan is scheduled for public comment and recommendations for edit this summer and that the plan is scheduled for publication in November, aligning with the United States Lifesaving Association’s Fall Board of Directors Meeting &Educational Conference, which will be held in Waikiki.

For Hornor the passage of the two measures and the increase in water safety awareness that will follow are the main driving force behind her continued advocacy.

“As somebody who’s experienced a loss of loved ones to drowning, the impact is just so profound and lifetime, and yet it can happen in an instant. If people can be aware of the main ways to avoid drowning, it really helps to be doing the work that I’m doing here,” Hornor said.

“Drowning has been a silent epidemic, but both of these bills show that Hawai‘i’s leadership is recognizing the importance of water safety and drowning prevention in our island state.”
Source: The Garden Island

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