Firehouse® Interview

Aug. 1, 2003
Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio K. Leonardi discusses the issues facing his department, its operations and plans for the future.
Attilio K. Leonardi was appointed fire chief in April 1998 by the newly formed Honolulu Fire Commission. The Honolulu Fire Department serves the 11th-largest city in the United States and is responsible for providing fire protection, suppression and rescue services for the entire island of Oahu (604 square miles). The department serves a population of approximately 900,000 and deploys a work force of 1,145 personnel.
Chief Attilio K. Leonardi of the Honolulu Fire Department

Leonardi has been with the Honolulu Fire Department for 32 years. He has a master's degree in public administration, a bachelor's degree in business management and an associate's degree in fire science. Leonardi graduated from the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and received a fellowship from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2000. In 2002, he earned the professional designation of "Chief Fire Officer" by the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. He is an active member of numerous local, city, state, and federal fire-related organizations.

The interview was conducted by Harvey Eisner.

Firehouse: You were the first fire chief appointed by the new Honolulu Fire Commission in 1998. What brought about that change?

Leonardi: The mayor started changing fire chiefs every year. In the interim, the mayor developed a panel and selected the previous chief before me and I became the deputy. The commission took a while to get established, about three years, and then I became the first chief after that.

Firehouse: You have an extensive educational background.

Leonardi: I think they wanted the fire chief to have credentials. I think that was one of the key factors.

Firehouse: You were accepted to go to Harvard with several other chiefs.

Leonardi: It was eight at the time. The program for senior executives. I try to keep up my EFO (Executive Fire Officer) and I just got the CFOD, Chief Officer Designee. I feel if I keep up, show the other guys that you've got to keep moving, you just can't be stagnant, I thought I would be a role model.

Firehouse: Please review your major goals when you took over, or perhaps your vision for the department.

Leonardi: Number one was terrorism. We had the Oklahoma bombing and we were starting to focus on that. We had to get our department up to snuff on terrorism-type activities.

Another was to develop an EMT-B program for the department. Right now, we're only first responders with defibrillator training. We wanted to move up a notch or so on the medical section.

Our certification program, right now we don't certify our firefighters and so we hooked up with IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress). I guess we're going to be the center for IFSAC certification in Hawaii. They give you five years to develop this, and so we're well on our way to that. That's a major initiative.

We've had a lot of priorities - to upgrade the department equipment, upgrade our training, bring our department up to a professional level.

One other priority was to get involved more nationally with what's going on around the United States and to get the public in Hawaii to recognize that firefighters don't only fight fires. We did that by bringing on a PIO (public information officer).

When I went back to the TRADE (Training Resources and Data Exchange) conference at Emmitsburg (the National Fire Academy), the Las Vegas PIO gave a presentation, and I was so impressed with that, I came back, developed that program here, got the funding for a temporary PIO.

We interviewed people and then we sent our PIO to Las Vegas and to another city and he came back and developed our program. That's one of the strongest things we ever did. I mean, every time we did something, we were in the paper. It's really heightened the level of professionalism of the firefighters and it's worked out real well. He just retired. I hated to lose him.

Firehouse: Besides some of the items you mentioned, are there other expanding roles for the fire department? Do you have to worry more about weapons of mass destruction now?

Leonardi: We have to worry about WMD. I think we would like to take a more active roll in EMS. In 1994, we had 4,000 EMS runs. Last year, we had 18,000 EMS runs. In 1994, we had 12,000 total runs for the department. Last year, for the first time we had over 30,000 runs and that's without being a major player in EMS. We have a tiered response system with emergency medical services, which is run by the city. It's another department in the city.

That was a major issue itself, the EMS part, because we had to go to the legislature and change the laws. It was an interesting process.

In the year 2000, we brought on our second dedicated hazmat team. Believe me, they were a godsend. When 9/11 happened, we had all the anthrax calls. That was a big expanding role for us. One of outcomes of that, and this is from Oklahoma bombing, is that now we have over 200 hazmat techs in the department.

The thing we just did was we have our own helicopter. We have numerous ocean rescues, mountain rescues, searches, brushfires. We were able to bring on a second helicopter in 2002. We got funding for that. So now we have air coverage 24 hours a day, 24/7. Before, when a chopper went down for repairs, our hands were tied because our guys had to hike long distances in the mountains where helicopters go. For us it's a major piece of equipment.

Firehouse: On the mainland it seems as though everybody is having trouble with budgets today. How is your budget going to go this year?

Leonardi: So far, our budget has been going well. For the last nine years, police and fire were the only departments that had their budgets increased every year. This year, we're going to get a small increase, but that's mainly to handle some pay issues. We're not losing any personnel and we're not closing any stations. Everything is status quo.

Firehouse: What's the department's staffing?

Leonardi: We have 1,145 personnel, so we have five per truck and we try to maintain a four minimum.

Firehouse: Is one of your programs maintaining wellness and fitness?

Leonardi: We're looking at moving our department into the national mainstream and the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) and IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs) wellness fitness program was one of them. We developed a wellness/fitness program, a mandatory program for our personnel one hour a day. The object was that we're going to get you in shape because when this mandatory issue supposedly comes for existing firefighters, there would be no excuse for you not to be in shape.

This year, we received a $360,000 FIRE Act grant for our fitness/wellness initiative and that will take us to the next level. That's what we were lacking, some funds and a part-time doctor to help us on the initial blood work for everybody.

The other big initiative was CPAT (Candidate Physical Agility Test). That's our requirement. We had the last test. Our first CPAT initial recruit class came on in March and they had to pass the civil service-type test. The agility portion was the CPAT agility. That's a major initiative. It costs a lot of money to get it implemented equipment-wise and we created a lot of interest by the police, other county fire, we invited them all down.

We got the figures, but we had 41 fail out of 200. It was like the national average. It worked out real well. We're very pleased that had we switched over.

Firehouse: How many people were in that new class?

Leonardi: Forty-four.

Firehouse: Do you have many people coming up to retirement age?

Leonardi: We lost 41 this year. What's hurting us too is a lot of military call-ups. That's another issue now. We have a relatively young department, and we've lost quite a few people.

About seven years ago, the city offered an early-retirement incentive deal and we lost a hundred-something individuals, so we've been catching up, including our regular retirements and other people who leave the department for whatever reason.

We have 333 firefighters with less than five years in the department, and we have 178 with between five and 10 years. So right there, we have over 500 - half of our work force - with less than 10 years.

One of our big initiatives is training, bringing the captains up to speed on making sure they cover all the requirements. We have long recruit classes, 21 weeks, so they come out well trained and ready to go.

We have quarterly chief officers workshops where we get away from the department and meet for one or two days. And we have an annual captains workshop, where we bring all our captains in and let them know what's going on during the year and what we have focused for next year.

Firehouse: What is the breakdown of the department in terms of engines, ladders and stations?

Leonardi: We have 44 stations. One is a fireboat station and one is the helicopter unit. Other than that we have 42 fire stations. We have 15 ladders. We have 42 engines and a half-dozen tankers, and two hazmat units. We also have two dedicated rescue units.

Firehouse: Please describe your apparatus fleet.

Leonardi: Our oldest apparatus is a 1987. As I said, one of our priorities was to update and improve our fleet. We have all the latest Pierce Quantums. We have quints. We got rid some of our tractor-trailers and went into quints, but we have still a few tractor-trailers for the downtown areas where you need to get around the tight alleys or things of that nature.

Yes, our fleet are pretty well up to date. We've caught up and usually we get two engines and a ladder every year, a ladder or a quint. We use those words interchangeably.

Firehouse: How many battalions do you have?

Leonardi: We have five battalions. We just picked up a command vehicle.

Firehouse: Is it unusual that the city fire department protects the entire county? Has it always been that way?

Leonardi: It's always been that way. A lot of people are surprised to learn that we cover the entire island, 604 square miles.

Firehouse: Does the fire department work a lot with the military?

Leonardi: Yes, we have mutual aid agreements with the military. The military bases have a few fire departments. We have a great working relationship with the federal fire department here. Since we're on an island, we all have to work together and we do that quite well with the federal firefighters.

Then there are the airport firefighters. The state controls all the airports on all of the islands. We have great working arrangements with them as well as with the military. For example, when we have big brushfires, they come out and support us with their tankers and all that. It's a good working relationship.

Firehouse: Regarding thermal imaging and other new technologies, have you bought into a lot of that?

Leonardi: Yes. We've picked up our first hand-held thermal imaging units, and they have the capabilities to use video also. Whatever you see, the command post can see.

We also picked up thermal imagery for our helicopter. The unit is mounted on the bottom of our helicopter. It's an $80,000 unit and it also has a thermal imagery for search and rescue, but if you flip a switch, it has video capabilities.

In the past, if you had a major brushfire or something going, the helicopter had to land, pick up a commander and take him up to check out the area. Now, flip a switch and whatever he sees, the command post will see. We have little dishes that we have to put on your car, a receiver, it has a five- to six-mile radius.

We've got our fourth generation of computers, two computers in every station. We have the Internet.

We run into AVLs (automatic vehicle locators) now. The first 47 AVLs are being installed as we speak and that will really make a major change. Four years ago, we changed our entire communications center. Probably the only thing we haven't done is get into 800 megahertz yet and that's been on the drawing board.

Firehouse: I see a tremendous amount of high-rises all over. Are they all required to be sprinklered?

Leonardi: No. After the MGM fire (which killed 84 people in Las Vegas on Nov. 21, 1980), we were able to pass a sprinkler ordinance for hotels. We tried to get all of the high-rises, but people were talking against it. We were able to get all the hotels sprinklered,but that left out all the other commercial buildings and all the residential high-rises. It left about 330 high-rises. The rest are all required. All new high-rises are required to be sprinklered.

About three years ago, we had a major high-rise fire here. From that, we were able to get the City Council again to expand the sprinkler ordinance. We tried to cover the other 330-something buildings. Well, at the very end it got watered down because the BOMA, which is the Building Owner's Management Association, put up a big deal about money and all this, and so all we were able to get was the 30 or 40 commercial buildings sprinklered. So we're going through the retrofit process right now. It's a five-year process. The initial letters have gone out to the owners to let them know that they have five years to comply. We've put them on notice that we will be coming in for the residentials again. We have over 300 residential high-rises that are not sprinklered.

At the same time, the entire City Council has changed because of term limits, so we're going to let them settle in and then we're going to come back with another initiative or we're going to be like everybody else and wait until something happens.

Every time we have a fire that's saved by a sprinkler system, we make big news out of it - there you go, this is more proof that sprinklers work - and that is where the PIO is very valuable.

We're a high-rise city, we probably have 700 high-rises, so we do a lot of training on high-rise fires, a lot of drilling on high-rises.

Firehouse: When you first receive a first-alarm assignment for a house fire, what would respond?

Leonardi: Right now, it's three engines, a ladder and a battalion chief. If it's a high-rise, it's three engines, two ladders, a rescue unit and a battalion chief. We stress the need to send enough people. We've learned that you've got to have adequate manpower or you're in trouble right off the bat.

Firehouse: Rapid intervention teams?

Leonardi: Yes, that's why we send a rescue on those incidents. They act as a rapid intervention team. And if they're not available, then they call another company to come in and assist with that. We have a lot of flexibility when it comes to calling additional companies.

A second alarm is a full alarm, another three engines, two ladders, the second rescue unit, another BC.

Firehouse: Let's talk about capital improvements to stations, such as replacements or renovations. Is that a priority?

Leonardi: Every year, we try to remodel at least two fire stations. We have six sites that we already had earmarked for future expansion, but then the economic bubble burst and everything slowed down. But we did open new stations. Two of these are engine/ ladder and one is engine/ladder and a rescue/hazmat unit, so we've added quite a bit in the last four or five years. We have been remodeling the older stations. Some of them we actually knocked down and rebuilt.

Firehouse: Are there other areas that are being built up?

Leonardi: When somebody wants to build up an area or a developer wants to come in and develop an area, they have to come through us as part of the permitting process. At that time, we say wow, this is a big development, it's in an area where we don't have a fire station and so we earmark a piece of property. That's why I said we have six sites already. We earmark an acre. They have to put an acre aside for a future fire station, developed or not, when the time comes. That's been really helpful because now we don't have worry about the property. The developer gives us the property free. We're an ISO Class 3 city. The entire city and county of Honolulu is Class 3. That's unusual.

Firehouse: I guess there's so much rain on the other side of the island that there's no problem with water for firefighting?

Leonardi: We have a terrific hydrant system. At one time, a lot of areas were short of hydrants, but now the water well supply is pretty accommodating. They have good long-range planning.

Firehouse: Are you building a new headquarters?

Leonardi: Yes. It's going to be on one of our older sites where we have a historic building, an old fire station that's on the national historic registry. That's going to be turned into an educational museum and next to it will be the headquarters. I've been in Admin for 16 years and that was one of my first projects, to get that, we've been pushing hard and we finally got it now. We've been renting this place temporarily. We've been here temporarily for over 10 years, so we're finally getting it. It's fully funded now - it's a $15 million project.

I think the best part is we're going to get a museum and start to bring back all of the things. We have very few artifacts.

Firehouse: Would you like to discuss any other programs?

Leonardi: Accreditation. That was one of the very first initiatives. Of course, accreditation was something new at the time. We became the 34th department to be accredited, but that was one of my very first initiatives. I've been following it as it was being developed, and it took a while, 10 years or so to develop it.

Firehouse: What were the criteria for accreditation?

Leonardi: It's a self assessment, so you have to get a team together. You have to send the team members to them to get trained on it and then they take a look at your entire department. There are nine main categories that you have to address. You come up with major mandates, then you submit it to them and they look it at, to see if you are ready or not ready to be accredited.

They go over your department with a fine-tooth comb. They check your records. They check your training. They check all your facilities. You have certain minimum requirements. You have to have a strategic plan. You have to have a deployment plan. All of these things have to be developed.

We put together a good team and we did it in a couple of years. It was a major effort on our part. All of our personnel, everybody was involved in it. What it shows is that we meet all the national or better than all the national standards for a modern-day fire department.

Firehouse: Under the auspices of the Fire Commission, how long do you serve?

Leonardi: It's a lifetime appointment. The commission, if they want to get rid of you, they have to give us just cause and give you a correction period. I've been fortunate the last three years, I received perfect ratings. I have nowhere to go but down and it's because of all the things we do.

We meet monthly with the Fire Commission. We keep them informed. We invite them to all of our ceremonies. It's keeping everything balanced.

Firehouse: Please describe the department's mentoring program. Who's going to be mentored?

Leonardi: The mentoring program is for successor training. For example, we trained our guys and now we have executive staff. We have classes. In fact, right now we have a professional speech person. He's going to do six days with us. That's to get these guys going, to start thinking that someday they're going to have to take this job or that job - it's successor training.

Our door is always open. I meet with the firefighters to discuss education opportunities with them. I have one person on the national entrance board. I have another person who's on the western board of directors. We try to get guys outside of the department too to get involved nationally as to what's going on, to keep everybody moving.

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