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Honolulu first responders see increase in emergencies, rescues

Members of the Honolulu Fire Department are urging residents and tourists to be mindful of the dangers of venturing off without adequate food, water and a fully-charged phone

Nina Wu
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — A local man in his 50s known to surf Ala Moana Bowls was found face down in the water at the popular surf spot at about 8 :30 Wednesday morning.

Honolulu Fire Department units were on the scene at 8 :35 a.m., swam out, and—with the help of lifeguards—got the man out of the water at 8 :39. Emergency Medical Services took over at that point. The man’s condition was not reported.

Rescues like this one are happening with increasing frequency on Oahu this year.

HFD reported Wednesday they have been averaging two land or ocean rescues per day, or 348 so far this year. In 2020 there were only 213 incidents in the first six months and 431 for the whole year. In 2019 there were 259 rescues in the first six months and 524 for the entire year.

The uptick in rescues may have to do with the return of more visitors and more people going out to enjoy Hawaii’s mountains and oceans, residents and visitors alike, said fire rescue Capt. Clifford Kala ʻi Miller.

The largest number of rescues, 170, were what is known as high-angle rescues, which involve terrains with slopes of 60 degrees or greater and typically require a helicopter to get an injured hiker off a mountain.

In addition to high-angle rescues, 33 involved searching for a person on land, 36 searches for a person in the water, 49 were swimming or recreational water area rescues, 26 involved surf rescues, and 34 watercraft rescues.

Of the total, 42 % involved visitors and 39 % residents, the other 19 % were either military, homeless or unknown.

In 2020 there were more rescues involving residents, 55 %, compared to 20 % that involved visitors.

Due to the pandemic and lockdown orders, there were presumably fewer visitors to rescue, and places like Diamond Head State Monument, the top rescue hike in previous years, was closed.

Prior to the pandemic, however, there were still more residents involved in rescue incidents, at 40 % in 2019, compared to 37 % that involved visitors.

There are, however, an additional number of rescues where residency remained unknown that could sway those percentages.

Among the top rescue sites are popular destinations like Diamond Head Summit Trail, which reopened in December, in addition to Koko Crater Stairs, Lanikai Pillbox and Maunawili.

Previously lesser-known trails like Lulumahu Falls in Nuuanu and Sunset Pillbox on Oahu’s North Shore are also becoming more frequent hike rescue sites.

This summer, firefighters responded to a barrage of 911 calls ranging from a hiker who fainted from dehydration at the top of Koko Crater Stairs to hikers lost after dusk on the way down from Sunset Pillbox, and a solo hiker frightened by a “large animal " on the Kamanaiki trail in Kalihi.

There were also a good share of hikers with twisted ankles, fractures, and other injuries from slips and falls.

On Tuesday night, HFD rescued two men in their 40s at Lulumahu who were lost and without drinking water. Both were local residents.

Prevention comes down to common sense and situational awareness, according to Miller. But any trail on the island can be considered difficult, depending on a person’s fitness level and experience.

Many hikers at Diamond Head, for instance, walk to the trailhead from their Kalakaua Avenue hotels on a hot and sunny day and end up dehydrated or underestimate their physical capacity.

HFD senior helicopter pilot Dustin Harris recommended people do their research before hitting Oahu’s trails or beaches, rather than rely on social media posts.

Also, people should check the weather forecast and know what conditions to expect before hiking, as well as what time the sun sets.

“Weather often plays a critical role in our rescues and it’s going to affect your hikes as well, " he said. “Generally if there are conditions that are going to make it difficult or more challenging to complete your hike, those same conditions are oftentimes creating additional hazards or challenges for us as pilots and for the rescue personnel on the ground.”

In addition, he said there are are some risky areas to hike on Oahu that people should simply avoid if they are beyond their skill level.

“Don’t endanger your own life and other people that might be involved in having to come rescue you, " he said.

Also, many social media posts may contain misinformation or incomplete information about hiking trails.

“You might see a beautiful picture but oftentimes it doesn’t capture the length of a hike or some of the risks involved along the way, " he said.

A fully charged cellphone with an extra battery pack is also advisable, particularly if you are using it for navigation or need it to make an emergency call.

“We often respond to people who are lost, and just having a good map available printed out or on your phone can a lot of times alleviate the need to call us, " he said.


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