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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Currently, there are 102 trained hazmat technicians in HCFD with 30 assigned to the hazmat companies. Eight hazmat technicians are on duty each shift. Technicians receive their training on the island through the State Civil Defense Agency. No mutual aid is available, since the entire fire department is on an island. If more personnel are needed, off-duty personnel are called back to duty. All firefighters on the island are trained to the hazmat-operations level.

Hazmat personnel are not dedicated to the hazmat units, but operate engine companies and respond to other emergencies as needed. Hazmat units are deployed on the east and west sides of the Big Island. The east station in Hilo shares quarters with Engine 1, a hazmat-equipment trailer for mass-decontamination and mass-casualty incidents, and a four-wheel drive utility pickup to tow the trailer. Hilo Hazmat 1 is a 1997 HME on a Marion body. Engine 1 is a 1990 Seagrave 1,500-gpm pumper with a 1,000-gallon tank. The west hazmat unit does not have its own station. Station 21 is under construction and will house Engine 21 and Hazmat 21. Hazmat 21 and Engine 21 are temporarily located at Waikoloa Station 16 in North Kona. Hazmat 21 is a 2005 Pierce and Engine 21 is a 2006 Pierce with a 1,500-gpm pump and 1,000-gallon tank.

There are no railroads or interstate highways in Hawaii. Most cargo for the Big Island comes through its two seaports, with the primary port in Hilo. The major county highways are 11 and 19. There is no natural gas service on the island, so gas needs are met by propane. Primary hazardous materials include pesticides associated with agriculture and propane, chlorine, flammable liquid fuels, ammonia and oxygen. Hazardous materials are often transported in intermodal containers. Petroleum flammable liquids are shipped by barge. Primary fixed hazmat exposures are flammable fuel tank farms and power plants.

The major hazmat exposure on the island is the Kilauea Volcano. Since 1952, there have been 34 eruptions, and since January 1983 eruptive activity has been continuous along the east rift zone. All told, Kilauea ranks among the world's most active volcanoes and is believed by many to be the most active in the world. Kilauea spews nearly 3,000 tons of ash and deadly sulfur dioxide each day. Sulfur dioxide is a colorless, non-flammable toxic and corrosive gas that is heavier than air with a very strong, pungent odor. The primary route of entry into the body is through inhalation. It has a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 classification of Health-3, Flammablity-0 and Reactivity-0. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) is 100 ppm. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Emergency Response Planning Guideline 2 (ERPG-2) is three ppm (this refers to the maximum airborne concentration below which it is believed that nearly all persons could be exposed for up to one hour without experiencing or developing irreversible or other serious health effects or symptoms that could impair their abilities to take protective action). Sulfur dioxide is primarily a respiratory hazard and can cause irritation to those with previous respiratory problems.

Weather conditions on the island often cause the creation of "Vog" — fog from the volcano. During my visit in July 2008, I had to drive through areas of Vog with a distinct smell of sulfur in the air. Since the Vog formations are somewhat unpredictable and can happen quickly, the strategy for protecting the public is sheltering in place. Civil Defense personnel recommend that "safe rooms" be prepared in all homes exposed to the release of sulfur dioxide from Kilauea. They have also proposed the purchase of air purifiers for all public schools to create "safe zones" within the schools.

HCFD has placed sulfur dioxide monitoring equipment at all fire stations. Seven Area RAE sulfur dioxide monitors have been deployed to strategic locations as well. Information from the fixed monitors is fed to a server at the RAE Co. and can be viewed real-time by fire department personnel for determining sulfur dioxide levels in the air at a given location.