Hazmat Response in Honolulu

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Honolulu is a beautiful city on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and the Honolulu Fire Department provides fire protection for the entire island, except for the military installations and Honolulu International Airport. I was surprised to learn it is the only fire department on the island.

Honolulu’s fire department was formed in 1850 by King Kamehameha III. It was the first fire department in the Hawaiian Islands and the only one in the United States established by a ruling monarch. Honolulu firefighters were volunteers until 1893, when the legislature authorized funding for salaries for them.

During the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Honolulu Fire Department dispatched three engine companies to fight fires caused by the bombing. Engines 1, 4 and 6 responded and firefighting efforts resulted in the deaths of two fire captains and a hoseman and injuries to six other firefighters. The firefighters killed and wounded received Purple Hearts, the only civilian firefighters in the United States ever receiving such an award.

Today, the HFD has over 1,000 uniformed personnel under the leadership of Chief Attilio Leonardi. The department protects the entire island of Oahu, 597 square miles and a population of 874,300 (75% of the population of Hawaii), using 42 engine companies, six tankers, 14 truck companies, two rescue squads, one brush unit, two hazardous materials units, two helicopters and a fireboat. Companies are located in 42 fire stations and organized into five battalions. It is the 16th largest fire department in the United States.

Because no mutual aid is available from the other Hawaiian islands, Honolulu firefighters must rely on their own resources to handle any emergencies that arise. (Limited mutual aid does occur between Honolulu and the federal fire departments on Oahu military installations and refineries, which have their own fire departments.) Honolulu does not provide emergency medical service through the fire department; EMS is provided by a separate city department.

The HFD’s Charles H. Thurston Training Center is located next to Station 8 Mokulele Fire Station, near Honolulu International Airport. While I was visiting the center, the familiar sound of a firehouse siren activated at the fire station next door. I was surprised to hear the siren, since there are no volunteer fire companies on the island. As it turns out, fire stations located near major intersections are equipped with house sirens that sound when an alarm is dispatched to warn motorists of fire apparatus entering the street.

The HFD’s Hazardous Materials Team was placed in service in 1990 and responds to all petroleum, radioactive materials and toxic chemical incidents on the island. There are two hazardous materials units in separate companies, Hazmat 1 is based in the City of Honolulu at Station 32 (Kalihi Uka Fire Station) and Hazmat 2 is located in Honolulu County at Station 40 (Kapolei Fire Station). Both Hazmat 1 and Hazmat 2 are 2000 Pierce vehicles. Station 32 houses Engine 32 as well as Hazmat 1. Station 40 houses Engine 40, Tower 40 and Brush 40 as well as Hazmat 2 and is Battalion 4 Headquarters. Engine 32 is staffed by five technicians and Tower 40 also has five technicians. Hazmat 1 and Hazmat 2 each have five technicians. There are an additional 60 trained hazmat technicians stationed through out the island.

Honolulu firefighters work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Their shifts are called “watches,” so they have first, second and third watch. Both hazmat units are equipped similarly with typical hazmat decontamination, patching and plugging tools and supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), breathing apparatus and miscellaneous tools. Each also carries a portable weather station, an underwater digital camera and a thermal imaging camera. The federal fire department at Pearl Harbor has a non-dedicated hazmat team available for mutual aid. The Honolulu International Airport Fire Department is operated by the state and foam units are available for mutual aid.

All HFD engine and truck company personnel are trained to provide decontamination. All Honolulu firefighters are trained to a minimum of awareness level. Captains assigned to the hazmat units provide hazmat training for all other department members. Hazmat technicians initially attend a two-week Chemistry of Hazardous Materials class and two weeks of hands on training involving PPE, decontamination, monitors, strategy and tactics, and other equipment. Team members also attend National Fire Academy terrorism response training and are sent to the academy in Emmitsburg, MD, for other hazardous materials classes.

Monitoring instruments used by the HFD include:

  • BW multi-gas monitors (4-gas 3 and 3-gas 3)
  • Draeger Tubes (18 gases or vapors)
  • APD 2000
  • Hazcat
  • Guardian-Biocapture (Guardian Reader)
  • Ludlums Micro Rem
  • Ammonia & Chlorine detectors
  • Pocket Dosimeters
  • M-8 paper
  • IR analyzer
  • Hazmat CAM

PPE used by the HFD Hazardous Materials Team includes Kapler Responder WMD Type for Level A. Level B suits used are PSC-Beta, Kapler Blue, Tyvec Saranex Yellow and Tyvec White. Breathing apparatus is manufactured by MSA and one-hour bottles are used for hazmat and 45-minute bottles for quick entry on apparatus for firefighting. Communication in suits is accomplished with bone mikes.

Because Oahu is an island, there are no interstate highways or railroads. Everything, including hazardous materials shipments, brought onto the island arrives by air or water. Trucks transport hazardous materials to locations of storage and use on the island. Honolulu has a large port facility with intermodal containers of hazardous materials (see “Intermodal Containers: What’s Inside Those Big Boxes?” in the December 2004 issue of Firehouse®). Hazardous materials exposures include two refineries (with their own fire departments), sulfuric acid, propane, anhydrous ammonia used in cold storage facilities, pipelines, petroleum storage and pesticides. Hawaii has the largest synthetic natural gas plant in the United States and a 12 million-gallon petroleum storage facility, built into a mountain during World War II.

For additional information or questions about the HFD Hazardous Materials Team, please contact Captain Carter Davis at 808-734-6770, e-mail hfdHIr@honolulu.hi.us or fax 808-841-7818.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. 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 a veteran of 26 years in fire and emergency services, with experience in career and volunteer departments. He has attained the rank of lieutenant, assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. 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 reached in the Internet at robert.burke@att.net.

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