Hawaii Airport Fire Chief is Short-Staffed


The chief for airport fire stations on three islands said today he is dangerously short of firefighters -- because of what he called an “inept” airports personnel office.

“I come here as a concerned fire chief,” said Maui Division Airport Fire Chief Eugene Perry. “I have been in the department 30 years and this is the worst I've seen it in 30 years.”

The director of transportation agreed that the airports division personnel office has been dysfunctional for years.

Perry runs six fire departments at airports on three islands in Maui county. The departments have been under fire for high use of overtime, but Perry said it’s hard to avoid overtime when vacant positions go unfilled year after year.

Perry said he’s reduced manning to five firefighters at Kahului Airport, which handles jumbo airliners. It used to have eight per shift. “They wanted me to further reduce the manning to four,” Perry told the state Senate Ways and Means Committee Monday. “I refused, due to life safety factors -- not only to firefighters but for the traveling public, tenants and employees at teach of these stations.”

Perry said he has reduced manning at all the airports he supervises. At Molokai, Lanai, and Kapalua there are three firefighters on day shift and only one at night. Hana and Kalaupapa have no firefighters at all.

Money is not the issue –- the positions are budgeted and considered essential. But Perry said the airports' personnel office, which took over hiring from the fire chiefs, spent three years figuring out how to hire firefighters. It has not run a promotions or recruiting test since 2007.

“The current personnel in there -- I'll be blunt -- at worst, they are dysfunctional and at best they need to be managed better,” Perry said.

The new state Transportation Director did not dispute that allegation.

“There certainly was dysfunction within the personnel office,” said acting director Michael Formby. Formby said he has accelerated hiring fire fighters and should fill most of the vacant positions in the next few months. An airport spokeswoman said there is a less severe problem of vacancies at Honolulu International Airport, where seven of 53 positions are unfilled.

State Sen. Donna Kim, chairwoman of the committee, said she didn’t understand why the department took so long to realize there was a problem. “Are people going to get suspended for this?” she asked Formby. “Are they going to get terminated for this or what? Because this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Kim’s hearing also included allegations that a huge contract to oversee the airport’s $900 million modernization program, awarded to Parsons Transportation Group, Inc., may have violated procurement laws.

Airport officials also revealed that many transactions made by Kauai airport managers using electronic “P-Cards” do not include required invoices or purchase requests. Kim said one manager embezzled $15,000 before being caught.

Formby said several investigations into airports management and corruption are ongoing -- including apparently inappropriate gifts to Brian Sekiguchi, the former airports deputy director. Monday, an airports engineer, Gene Matsushige, said he joined Sekiguchi in accepting a free hotel room and free tickets to the 2009 masters golf tournament from contractor R. M. Towill and Chevron.

“This was the first time I did anything like this. It will be the last time,” Matsushige said. The state Ethics Commission is investigating the gifts.

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