Kauai’s firefighters, stations are in danger

If you’ve driven past the Koloa fire station any time in the last few weeks, you may have noticed an odd-looking, brand-spanking new fire truck of a type never before seen on Kauai.

It is at once testimony to the Kauai Fire Department embracing necessary change and a lesson in how our financially strapped county is continuing to put our firefighters at risk every day. This is not the fault of their department. It’s all of our fault.

First, to the new fire truck. When the lobby building at the former Coco Palms caught fire a couple of years ago, firefighters had no choice but to surround the burning building and spray it with water from the ground. That’s because Kauai was the only fire department in Hawaii without a ladder truck.

You may think that ladder trucks are only useful for tall building fires and, you realize, Kauai doesn’t have any of those. Though ladder trucks are certainly useful in rising to reaching heights out of reach of ground personnel, their biggest advantage is they can spray water down into a fire from above. Huge.

The fire department got lucky the day of the Coco Palms fire. Wind conditions that could easily have spread that fire up into Wailua didn’t materialize. But a ladder truck could have knocked the fire down in shorter order than was actually the case. Lives are at risk every second a structure fire burns out of control.

However, fire trucks are nothing if not expensive and, though the Kauai Fire Department leadership realized they needed a dedicated ladder company, it remained financially beyond reach. This year, however, the department realized it had to do whatever was necessary to come up with money to purchase such a vehicle.

Fortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had money to offer, which ended up paying 90 percent of the $791,000 cost of the spanking new 74-foot Rosenbauer vehicle, which in addition to providing an aerial capability also works like a pumper.

And that’s very, very good news, especially for large facilities built decades ago that still lack sprinkler systems, and for homeowners.

(Side note: If you’re one of the conspiracy theory devotees who thinks FEMA is a secret agency waiting to lock all of us up in prison when the New World Order strikes, get a grip. FEMA money keeps our public safety agencies’ heads above water.

As was the case with Hurricane Iniki, when a disaster strikes Kauai, it will be FEMA that bails us out.)

The county even held a pule ceremony for the new fire truck. The mayor attended, with lots of dignitaries.

But let’s not forget that at the same time, every day, we ask our firefighters to work out of stations that could be inundated in a tsunami or from the storm surge of a major hurricane.

Kauai has eight fire houses. Half of them — Waimea, Kekaha, Hanapepe and Kapaa — are, quite literally, just a few feet above sea level and close to the beach. When a tsunami warning siren goes off, firefighters in those stations have to quickly pack up whatever gear they can and load it onto their vehicles and then move up to higher ground. A tsunami that wiped out a fire station and killed its personnel would be one of the most tragic events in the history of the island. It must not happen.

A note of disclosure: I’m a volunteer in the fire department’s Community Emergency Response Team program. As chair of the Charter Review Commission, I recused myself from voting on a charter amendment (which eventually passed) relating to fire department organization.

In Kapaa, the situation is most amenable to a multi-agency solution. The Kauai Police Department currently occupies the Kapaa Armory under a lease that will expire unless a formal agreement with the state Department of Defense is forthcoming. An ideal solution would be a new joint police/fire station in Kapaa. This arrangement works in Princeville/Hanalei. It could work in Kapaa.

The Westside situation is perhaps more disturbing because three fire stations in a row are at risk. If the highway was cut anywhere east of Hanapepe and a tsunami wiped out the three fire stations, the entire Westside would be in mortal danger. The Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility has a small fire department, but its mission is protecting the base, which is also in the tsunami zone.

Fire stations are expensive. It is equally obvious that Kauai County’s budget situation is dire. There is a new County Council, however, and its newly configured membership would do well to move fire station replacement way up the scale of priorities. It will be too late if something happens and some of our firefighters drown because their fire houses were hit by a sudden tidal wave.

FEMA actually had a national grant competition that gave out $210 million in funding for new fire house construction or renovations in 2009. Only one of those grants came to Hawaii — $4,113,686 to the Hawaii County Fire Department for a new station in Hilo.

The Kauai Fire Department, as far as I can find out, did not apply. The problem was that this was what government people call “one-time money,” not a recurring program. The $210 million came from recovery funding appropriated by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown that nearly drove the United States into a depression.

I don’t believe a single word I hear from President-elect Donald Trump, especially relating to his ballyhooed infrastructure expenditure scheme.

If anything remotely like it actually materializes (don’t hold your breath), there might be some fire station money again.

Really, though, it all comes down to how important our County Council thinks firefighter and community safety is. Replacing four dangerous fire houses won’t happen overnight.

But it’s time for the council to get its act together and initiate this process.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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