Hazmat Response On the "Big Island" of Hawaii

 Hawaii County, sometimes referred to as the "Big Island," is the easternmost county in the State of Hawaii. It covers an area of 5,087 square miles, but is still growing because of lava-flow activity from the Kilauea Volcano. The island of Hawaii is the...


  Hawaii County, sometimes referred to as the "Big Island," is the easternmost county in the State of Hawaii. It covers an area of 5,087 square miles, but is still growing because of lava-flow activity from the Kilauea Volcano. The island of Hawaii is the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian...


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Hawaii County, sometimes referred to as the "Big Island," is the easternmost county in the State of Hawaii. It covers an area of 5,087 square miles, but is still growing because of lava-flow activity from the Kilauea Volcano. The island of Hawaii is the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian Islands and many areas of land mass are lava flows with no vegetation.

The Big Island has almost 63% of the land mass in the state with a population of over 159,000. When I was flying in for a landing in Kona on the Big Island's southern shore, I noticed what I thought were some large burned areas from a brushfire. Turns out it was just lava that has not yet been covered with vegetation. Apparently, it takes 100 years or more for vegetation to start growing on the lava. Because of this lack of vegetation, areas of the island look like they are on another planet! There are no incorporated cities on the island and the government, including the fire department, covers the entire county. The county seat is in Hilo (pronounced "He-lo") on the northern shore.

Organized fire protection in Hawaii County began in 1888 with the formation of volunteer companies using horse-drawn apparatus. The first station was on Kekaulike Street in Hilo. Jack Wilson was the first volunteer fire chief and a steamer and hose wagon were housed in the new station. Wood was used to fire the boiler, which produced steam to run the fire pump. By 1910, the Hilo Volunteer Fire Department had 60 members and responded to 11 fire calls that year. Additional equipment in service included a chemical wagon mounted on a car and a second car was used to tow the steam engine. In 1919, the first motorized apparatus, a 750-gpm Seagrave engine, was placed in service.

The first career firefighters were hired in 1924 and included William Todd, the first paid chief, an assistant chief, drivers and hosemen; seven personnel total. The career service was supplemented by volunteers, which continue in service today. In 1927, the second motorized apparatus was purchased, a 1,000-gpm Seagrave. Four years later, 12 more personnel were hired; in 1937, a third engine was placed in service. Emergency medical service was added to the department in 1972 with two firefighters trained as EMTs.

The present-day Hawaii County Fire Department (HCFD), headquartered in Hilo, is a combination department with 353 uniformed personnel and 230 volunteers under the command of Chief Darryl J. Oliveira. Hawaii County is the only fire department in the Hawaiian Islands with volunteer firefighters. HCFD provides fire suppression, EMS, land and sea rescues, vehicle or other extrications, and hazardous materials mitigation for all Big Island residents and visitors. Hawaii County is divided into east and west operational areas. HCFD has 20 full-time fire/medic stations and 24 volunteer fire stations.

The department operates more than 60 apparatus and support vehicles, including 21 engines, two rescue companies, 15 advanced life support (ALS) medic units, two hazardous materials response units and a specialty truck for Waipio Valley incidents — the road into the valley is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. HCFD has two helicopters, Chopper 1: Rescue Chopper, quartered at the Waiakea Fire Station, and Chopper 2: Medevac Chopper, quartered at the South Kohala Fire Station. Because there is no truck company, engine companies are assigned to truck operations as needed. The volunteer companies have additional apparatus for a variety of emergencies. Crash-rescue protection at the airports on the island is provided by the state, not HCFD.

The Hawaii County Fire Department organized its hazardous materials teams in 1995. The two hazmat units respond to an average of 190 calls per year, including fuel spills and gas leaks. Most of the major calls involve hazmat-related fires and overturned petroleum tankers. Engine companies carry absorbent material and handle small fuel spills. Spills greater than 10 gallons require the response of a hazmat unit.

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