Make no mistake, being a lifeguard is not an easy job. Wearing red and yellow in this state comes with a great deal of responsibility. It’s a highly coveted position, and Maui is proud of its talented and dedicated lifeguards.
According to the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, the requirements to become an Ocean Safety Officer (or lifeguard) are the following:
- Must be 18 years old
- Must have a Hawaii State drivers license
- Must have a high school diploma, GED, or proof of completion of high school
- Proof of an American Heart Association or American Red Cross CPR Certification
- Proof of an Emergency First Responder Card or Certificate (must meet the U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines)
- Proof of a U.S. Lifesaving Association Ocean Lifeguard Certificate or Red Cross Lifeguard Training Certificate
Plus, you must be able to complete the physical performance part of the test, which includes:
- 1000 meter run and 1000 meter swim in under 25 minutes
- 500 meter swim in under 10 minutes
- 400 meter rescue board paddle in under 4 minutes
- 100 x 100 x 100 run swim run in under 3 minutes
Each lifeguard will be retested on all of these factors on an annual basis, and receive training in the following areas:
- Personal Water Craft (PWC) Equipment
- All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV)
- Automatic External Defibrillators (AED)
I was lucky enough to sit down with Kaleo Amadeo, a 21 year veteran Maui lifeguard, at his current station at Ho’okipa Beach Park in North Maui to talk about the specifics of being a lifeguard on the island.
- What is the most intense part of the lifeguard training process?
The hardest part has been keeping up with the USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) standards to remain a lifeguard. It used to be once you were in, you were in, but now you have to worry about keeping your job on a yearly basis and still being able to keep up with the time requirements. The most challenging part is the 1000 meter swim and 1000 meter run in under 25 minutes.
What happens now is that you have veteran lifeguards, like myself, who know the ocean, know what to look for, and know how to handle emergency situations, suddenly going up against kids that were excellent on the swim team or the track team and can pass the test because they have great speed, but have no real wisdom of what it’s like to be out there in the water. It’s frustrating to see that happen. I like how the Fire Department does it, where once you pass, you work as a team afterward to complete challenges on a Pass/Fail basis. This process would make sense in our line of work as well. If I don’t have my team, I don’t have anything.
- What sets Hawaiian lifeguards apart from others around the world?
Nothing that I can really think of specifically. Somehow, being a Hawaiian lifeguard got blown up as being this big thing, when it’s really not that different than anywhere else. There are huge waves and dangerous beaches everywhere, so the only difference for us is that we’re out here in the middle of nowhere on a rock. Most beach lifeguards in the country have to meet the same requirements, so at the end of the day, we all carry the same responsibility, which is safety.
- Once you’re hired, are you assigned a certain beach to work or do you get moved around?
It’s mostly a seniority thing. I’m on this beach 5 times a week from 8:00am to 4:30pm. But at first, we all get shifted around to different beaches, which I think is important. It’s good to know all parts of the island, because then you’re not lost when someone asks you to go here or there for the day. Plus it’s always good to work with more members of your team by being shifted to different areas.
- What is your advice for those who want to become a lifeguard on Maui?
Don’t do it for the money. You’re not going to get rich doing this job. It’s about loving what you do. I don’t make a million dollars, but I live a million dollar lifestyle. I’m in the water everyday and get the chance to meet people, talk to them, help them, and if you love that kind of lifestyle, that’s it. It’s cool to see personal relationships evolve from people you meet doing this job. I get to see these kids run around the beach as babies and then before you know it, I’m invited to their graduation party. It’s awesome to see kids I know join the Junior Lifeguard Program and then work side-by-side with them later on. I eat, sleep and breathe my job, and you have to be willing to be on your game all day, everyday. Sometimes I look around and see that my partner and I are in charge of hundreds of people on the beach and in the water, and I personally love being an asset to my community in that way.
- What is the number one mistake that leads to rescue situations?
Assuming they’re safe. Sometimes people make fun the priority instead of their safety, and that’s when it becomes dangerous. There are strong rip currents on this beach, and people can get pulled out real far. What I see happen a lot is people get out and then have no idea how to get back in. They don’t remember where they came in from. You always need to have an entry and an exit plan.
When we leave at 4:30, it’s up to the locals on the beach to give people a heads up and help them out. Everyone is responsible in that way.
- Tell us about your most memorable day as a Maui lifeguard.
My 1st CPR case, which was on the exact 1 year anniversary of me being a lifeguard. I remember looking in the mirror that morning and thinking “hey, it’s been a year and I haven’t had to rescue anyone yet” and then of course, later that day, I did. A tourist was sitting in the beach park, not in the water, and we looked over and saw his wife waving to us and had to go perform CPR. And then you realize, everything you learned in class goes right out the window. It doesn’t matter how much you studied the textbook, when the real thing happens, you forget all that stuff and have to work hard to keep calm and have grace under pressure. I’ve seen all kinds of legal liability issues, and trust me, it’s not where you want to be. Nobody sues you for $200,000, but they’ll sue you for $1,000,000. You’re responsible for people’s lives, so you have to know how to handle yourself and always be aware of that.
- I read that lifeguards are no longer allowed to surf on their work breaks. What do you think about this new rule?
I think it’s a bummer. The best lifeguards are surfers themselves, like Eddie Aikau, the first ever lifeguard on Oahu’s Waimea Bay, who was put in charge because of his abilities as a big wave surfer and the confidence people had in his skills in the water. When you’re out there, you know what to look for and you’re more confident because you have no fear of the water. In emergency situations, time is your competition, so if you have one lifeguard out there in the water, you’ve already got a head start if you need to rescue someone in the surf zone. And if that lifeguard knows how to handle themselves in surf, on good and bad days, they feel more confident and have better overall abilities in the water. When they put this rule in place, moral and confidence went down.
People feel a better sense of trust and confidence in your abilities when they see you out there in big waves rather than sitting in a tower all day with a whistle. I have 3 years until I retire, and I would honestly love to keep doing this job, but this new rule has changed my feelings about it. If I can’t be out there seeing what’s happening, enjoying the water while still doing the job I love, what’s the point? I know they have their reasons for not wanting us out there, like liability issues, but I could just as easily break my leg walking down the tower steps. I love the water and really believe everyone benefits from having us out there in it. I’ve had some of the best moments in big wave surfing because of this job, and it’s given me the opportunity to meet so many people.
- When you’re not busy working, where can you usually be found?
Out here, in the water. This is my life and what I love.
- Any other thoughts you want to share?
Everyday, we risk our lives for complete and total strangers. But it’s all about showing people aloha. Aloha means giving more than you receive. A lot of rescues I do aren’t in the water. Sometimes people just need a friend… someone to listen to them, talk to them, understand them. A huge part of this job is just knowing how to approach people. If a guy on the beach has his dog off the leash and I want to tell him to fix it, I don’t go down there and say “hey, put your dog on a leash.” No. I go down, talk to him for a bit, show him a bit of aloha, and then use my radio and say that someone is coming around handing out tickets to dog owners who don’t have their pets on a leash. People need to know I’m working, but that I’m still there to help them. It’s good to know how to make friends instead of enemies, and because of that, I have friends all over the world. I met two new friends from Dubai yesterday! It’s just about knowing how to talk to people. My wife always laughs because I watch the Maui Visitor Channel on TV. I’m not able to do all the activities I see on TV or eat at all the restaurants on there, but it’s good to know so I have things to suggest to people when I meet them. It makes me better at my job and they appreciate it. Give aloha and you’ll get it back.
Also, I wouldn’t be anywhere without the people I work with. It’s all about communication and working as a team. If I radio in and say I’m going out to rescue someone and they see me break my board or my leash, I know they’ve already got the wave runner and are on their way. We work together to make the best of situations, and as long as I have my team on my side, I don’t need anything else. Sometimes I take it for granted, but If I died today, at least you’ll know I died happy.
Maui Beaches that have lifeguards include:
- Kamaole I, II and III
- Hanakao’o Beach Park (aka Canoe Beach)
- Kanaha Beach Park
- Baldwin Beach Park
- Ho’okipa Beach Park
- Makena Beach (aka Big Beach)
I’d like to give a special thank you to Joe Faustine from Maui Rippers, who makes the best quality lifeguard uniforms in Hawaii.
Always remember, when in doubt, don’t go out!