CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan --
Often referred to as the “Hawaii of Japan,” Okinawa is a semi-tropical island and the largest in the Ryukyu chain. It is surrounded by world-class beaches and has a moderate climate with an average annual temperature of 73 degrees Fahrenheit. Okinawa thrives from the popular tourism industry and is considered a hot spot for a variety of recreational water activities, such as sport fishing, swimming, scuba diving, kayaking, jet skiing, surfing, and kite boarding.
This introduction of Okinawa is very attractive and a lot of service members and their families enjoy engaging in various water activities at these beautiful beaches. However, as the saying goes, "every rose has its thorn." These beaches and surrounding waters are made of reefs and such an environment can become a place of tragedy.
Twenty-three people gathered in the Camp Foster Community Center April 21 for the Annual Joint Services Water Safety Working Group to discuss the water safety related issues and share their initiatives. The group was made up of representatives from Marine Corps Installations Pacific Safety Office, MCIPAC Fire and Emergency Services, III Marine Expeditionary Force Safety Office, 18th Wing Safety from Kadena Air Base, Commander Fleet Activities Okinawa of Navy Region, Japan, Naval Oceanography Anti-Submarine Warfare Detachment Kadena, U.S. Army Garrison Okinawa Fire and Emergency Services, 10th Support Group from U.S. Army, Marine Corps Community Services, 11th Regional Japan Coast Guard, Water Safety Division from Okinawa Prefectural Police, and Okinawa Ocean Safety, a local group who educates and shares information of the unique dangers of recreation in Okinawa's ocean.
The working group has held annual meetings since 2014 to discuss and identify issues to reduce mishaps in the water. This year was a little different from previous years, recent fatal incidents made the air in the venue tense.
“Recreational water-related mishaps are the deadliest activity for service members," said Shawn Curtis, the director of MCIPAC Safety Office. "More service members die in Okinawa’s coastal waters than any other activities they partake in during their tour on the island. Naturally, the focus was on risks with the greatest potential for loss in an effort to minimize the impact on the organization and the community,” he said about the working group meeting.
Recent Statistics and trend analysis
Upon the opening of the meeting, Curtis, one of the chairmen of the meeting, showed a map of the locations where repeated drowning fatalities and near misses occur. According to Curtis, there have been 38 water fatalities involving Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) personnel since the year 2000. However, near misses where rescue services were not deployed, are not reported and it affects the analysis for such incidents.
“We have near misses and near drownings, but we have challenges getting reports of near misses," said Curtis. "We know about the ones first responders help with, but some performed self-rescue or friends helped them out, where do we get the information? That is the challenge for us because we cannot do trend analysis in finding out what activity, what locations, what conditions they were under, so we can focus on the effort."
While Curtis went over the drowning statistics and mishap analysis, he discussed the tendency of the fatality and near miss incidents and possibility of their pattern. Curtis pointed out that the number of drowning fatalities in Okinawa as a whole last year was the lowest in the past 25 years. He speculated the number was affected by the low number of tourists visiting Okinawa due to COVID-19. However, four fatalities reported were SOFA members and it was one of the higher years since 2011. According to Curtis, the highest number in one year was six since 1995 when MCIPAC Safety Office started recording.
The possibility of the increase in fatalities of SOFA members could be due to the restrictions in place of COVID-19. Water activities are one of the few activities which you could do while social distancing, but the cause of concern, Curtis stressed, is the frequency which fatalities are happening. “We are starting to see spikes.”
Curtis also mentioned younger generations are more likely to be the victims of water-related incidents, saying the decision making process may differ from that of the older generations. Also statistics show 90 percent of the victims are male. Curtis analyzed that the males look at risk differently and are easily influenced by peers much more than the females, stating the examples of jumping from cliffs and bridges or entering water recklessly in conditions which they are not prepared for.
According to the water-mishap analysis, most drowning fatality incidents in Okinawa happen not in the summer but in the fall. October is the month with the most drownings and 73 percent of fatalities occurred during fall and winter. Curtis said it may be the northerly winds’ impact on the island and stronger waves and current coming in the north; people who are fascinated by such conditions are drawn to the ocean.
Initiatives and suggestion
The U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa has been conducting Joint Reception Center briefs and Newcomers Orientation and Welcome Aboard briefs to everyone arriving in Okinawa, and has shown a video on water safety since 2004. Marine Corps Forces Japan Order 5101.1 with change 1, Recreational Water Activities, which was recently updated March of this year, requires commands to have recreational liberty discussions with water safety as the mandated topic.
The group discussed how they can convey safety messages and information to the people. One way the group hopes will help beachgoers stay more safe is through the Liberty App. The Liberty App was developed in partnership between MCIPAC Safety and MCCS. It is connected to the MCIPAC water safety web page and provides three Map overlays - one for drowning locations with a brief synopsis of each event. Another depicting rescues and the third showing rip current locations.
James R. Jarrell, 18th Wing Safety, also recommended developing a map of Okinawa that would identify high-risk areas and suggest swimmer experience levels, similar to ski maps depicting trail difficulty levels.
“Everybody has the opportunity for the water,” said Curtis. “The highest incidents of fatalities and near misses are snorkeling because snorkeling requires no formal training. That is the activity anybody is capable of doing and more likely to venture further out than the swimming area.” At the same time, Curtis emphasized the importance of wearing snorkel vests and pointed out that the requirement of such vests stated in MARFORJO 5101.1 W CH 1, Recreational Water Activities.
Jason MacDonald from Okinawa Ocean Safety, who voluntarily provides a free monthly Ocean-Risk Management course to anyone who is interested, shared his experience during a typhoon event. He said he received numerous calls from water sport enthusiasts, such as surfers, kayakers, divers, and spear fishers, for water conditions. He emphasized the swell from the typhoon and continuous efforts on informing people to stay away from the ocean on his Facebook page. The statistics prove 71 percent of known conditions occurred in elevated sea state.
MacDonald provided an example of unprepared ocean goers who tried to do spear fishing in Cape Zampa, one of the repeated incident locations, but did not even know how to attach the snorkel to their mask.
Navy Lt. Grace Dalton from Naval Oceanography ASW Detachment Kadena talked about their effort on collaborating with 18th Wing Weather Flight to enhance sea condition reading capabilities.
The group also discussed if cameras can be installed at locations that have a history of repeated incidents to provide real-time footage of sea conditions. OPP explained cameras were unlikely due to the fact most of the coastline is managed by municipalities.
Registered beaches and remote/natural/unguarded beaches in Okinawa
Ryuzo Fukunaka, chief inspector of the Water Safety Division from the OPP Headquarters, said that they had a series of meetings in January and February with JCG and the Lifesaving Association in Okinawa to discuss how to prevent and decrease the number of fatalities and near misses in the natural coasts where no lifeguards or lifesavers are employed.
According to Fukunaka, there are about 60 beaches in Okinawa which are registered with the Okinawa prefecture in compliance with the Prefectural Water Safety Ordinance. Such beaches are required to have "water rescue personnel" such as certified lifesavers in addition to lifeguards.
Certified lifesavers, granted by the Lifesaving Association, are those who have learned rescue methods, first aid for injuries, CPR/Automated External Defibrillators (AED), knowledge of hazardous marine life and have passed various swimming tests. Holders of certifications issued by other organizations, such as the Japanese Red Cross Society, are referred to as "water rescue personnel'' under the Prefectural Water Safety Ordinance. They are required to be assigned to registered beaches.
Fukunaka stressed that 70-80 percent of mishaps occurring in the natural beaches have no rescue crew and are unguarded. The number of water incidents in Okinawa in the last two years remains among the five highest out of all the prefectures in Japan. It proved that water safety is a common issue to both the U.S. community and Okinawans. In 2020, there were 43 water-related fatalities and missing persons’ incidents in the local population including tourists and of which four were U.S. related.
Another obstacle with remote beaches is the response time. The group all agreed that the further away from military bases or cities you go, the lower the response time is. One of the participants stated these remote areas' response time can take up to 90 minutes or longer. If a water rescue situation is identified outside a military base, the Okinawa authorities have jurisdiction. The local fire station, police station and JCG are notified and the closest local fire station tends to be the first one to the incident site with the JCG and military emergency services arriving after.
“Those past incidents showed that the younger service members seemed to look for excitement and intentionally choose the remote locations," said Fukunaka. "They should be aware that such locations take longer for the response team to reach.”
He stated that police conduct operations and information gathering on the coast, and if necessary, rescue operations will be carried out by police vessels and helicopters. Firefighters use jet skis and rubber boats to rescue on the coast, while JCG can rescue the people who are swept offshore, mainly by helicopter or patrol boat. He stressed that each of them has their own strengths and they work together.
After the meeting, Mitsukazu Shimabukuro, Boating and Water Safety Division chief of 11th Regional Coast Guard, (first time at the meeting,) was surprised to know how in-depth the group discussed water safety and that the awareness is much higher than he expected. “I am glad that I could see what we wouldn’t see from outside, their internal initiatives, and get to know how hard they are trying to reach out to their community for water safety. With involving all the related entities, not just safety but fire department and even scuba diving shop, it is meaningful to discuss safety awareness,” said Shimabukuro.