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 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.

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.

Equipment carried on Hawaii County hazmat units is typical of most hazmat units. Level A chemical suits are Lakeland and Saint Gobain ONEsuits. Level B suits are encapsulated and non-encapsulated suits by Lakeland. In-suit communications are provided in an interface mounted directly to the MSA facemask and linked to a Motorola XTS 2500 via a PTT. Respiratory protection is provided by MSA 60-minute self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and MSA air purified respirators (APRs) used mainly for sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from the Kilauea Volcano.

Hazmat units are equipped with laptop computers with Internet access and printers. They have NIOSH, CAMEO, ALOHA, Marplot, COBRA and Ex-PUB computer software programs to assist in research for hazmat characteristics and information. Hard-copy reference materials carried on the units include the Coast Guard Chris Manuals, Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Farm Chemical Handbook, Merck Index and Association of American Railroads Explosives. Monitoring instruments for hazardous materials carried in addition to sulfur dioxide monitors includes Canberra dosimeters, Dräger tubes, thermal imager, Ludlum 14C, Micro RAD, Dräger four-gas, night-vision binoculars, Sensor IR and others. Terrorist agent monitors carried include APD 2000, Dräger CMS and MSA PID.

For additional information, contact Special Operations Battalion Chief Clint Coloma at 808-981-8365 (keep in mind that there is a five-hour time difference between Hawaii and the East Coast of the U.S. mainland).

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.