HANAPEPE — Growing up, Micah Contrades never thought he’d be a firefighter.
“I know there are some people who go through life knowing they want to be a firefighter when they get older. For me, I never really considered it,” he said.
Contrades, 24, was a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, pursuing a degree in computer science. When he came back to Kauai one summer, a friend told him the Kauai Fire Department was taking applications for the fire exam, and he decided to take it.
“I thought it’d be a great opportunity to move home and continue my family’s history of public service,” said Contrades, whose father, Michael Contrades, is the deputy police chief of the Kauai Police Department.
The two friends studied together, and both passed.
“It completely changed my course,” Contrades said. “Working as a firefighter has been an amazing experience and there’s no job I’d rather have.”
Contrades joined KFD on May 1, 2014. He was stationed at the Lihue and Koloa fire stations before transferring to Hanapepe, where he now works.
Contrades fought his first fire at the end of last year in Kalaheo.
“By the time we got there, it was a fully involved fire with flames coming out of the side and out of the roof,” he said.
Everybody in the house had already gotten out safely, and no one was injured.
“There were a few hazards, like propane tanks up against the house and a lack of good water supply, but we did the best job we could and got the fire under control,” he said. “It was a good fire to have as a first experience; it was relatively safe, as fires go.”
When facing tough situations, Contrades likes to focus on what he needs to do to get the job done.
“I try to focus more on what I need to do to get the situation under control and try to keep my emotions from interfering with my thought,” he said.
Aside from that, Contrades relies on his training.
8 months of training
The recruiting process included eight months of training, which included fire suppression, vehicle extrication, lifeguarding, rope and rappelling and hazardous material training.
“Our longest part of training was actually our medical training, which was a six-week course,” he said.
It was extensive because Contrades’ recruit class was the first KFD class to be certified as emergency medical technicians, he said.
“Because medical responses are the majority of our calls now, the department wants to move toward providing better medical care for the public,” he said. “The department makes sure we’re trained extremely well before going into the field.”
Life as a firefighter
But adjusting to life as a firefighter had its challenges, including working 24 hours a day and always being ready for action, Contrades said.
“At any moment, if we get a call, we’ll drop whatever it is we’re doing to respond to an emergency,” he said. “We could be in the middle of cooking, eating, showering or sleeping, it doesn’t matter. Emergency response comes first because that’s our job.”
There are eight fire stations on Kauai. They are located in Hanalei, Kaiakea, Kapaa, Lihue, Koloa, Kalaheo, Hanapepe and Waimea.
KFD has 145 total fire positions, including the chief and deputy. There are four positions that are vacant, said Sarah Blane, county spokeswoman.
There are usually five people on a shift, which starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 7 a.m. the following day.
The majority of calls for service at the Hanapepe station are for medical help, but the crew also gets several calls to rescue people who got lost in Kokee. Calls for brush fires are also common on the Westside, especially in the summer, Contrades said.
When he’s not responding to calls, Contrades helps the crew clean and maintain the equipment. They also partake in extra training, like reviewing rescue and medical exercises.
“Things don’t happen every day, but that’s why we need to train every day — so we don’t get rusty,” Contrades said.
While firefighters do get some down time, it can be hard to relax, Contrades said.
“There’s always a voice in your head that says, ‘What if something happens,’” he said.
For a fire call, firefighters are expected to be in their gear in a minute, Contrades explained.
“You go from sleeping to action,” he said. “You practice doing it, but when you’re doing it for an actual fire, it takes some getting used to.”
Because shifts are 24 hours, the people on the crew become family, Contrades said.
“Going to work means living with your co-workers for those 24 hours,” he said. “Because we spend so much time together, it’s even more important than most jobs that we get along well together and cooperate well with each other.”
A bright future
Contrades hopes to have a long career with KFD.
“I plan on being with the department until I retire, and I hope I can positively make an impact both with the department and the population of Kauai while working here,” he said.
Contrades also likes that the job is always changing.
“Every day on our job is different and every call is different, which has provided me with many life experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.
The most rewarding part of the job is helping people in their time of need.
“Being able to respond to their problems and try to solve it and improve their situation is an amazing feeling,” he said.