Nearly seven months after Manuel Neves retired as chief of the Honolulu Fire Department, the panel tasked with selecting his replacement remains evenly divided on who should be the new chief.
Three members of the Honolulu Fire Commission support Lionel Camara Jr., the acting chief, while three others back Sheldon Kalani Hao, the acting deputy chief.
Now, as the commission is scheduled to resume its deliberations Tuesday, lengthy delays on Hao’s report are raising questions.
While training for online assignments such as trauma care, gunshot wounds, workplace stress, response to terrorism and handling hazardous materials is not a requirement for the job of chief, both finalists submitted the documentation to the commission along with their resumes. (All four documents are reproduced below.)
Camara’s report shows him tardy on about 150 of the nearly 800 assignments taken between July 2016 to July 14 of this year. Three of those assignments — identified as hotstick, elevated rail awareness and warning strobe alarm device — were completed 74 days after their due date and coincide with when Camara was on medical leave.
By contrast, Hao’s report shows him overdue on most of the 450 assignments listed in his report. Many of them were delayed for over a year and include one assignment — identified as an annual review hurricane SOG — that was finished 769 days after its due date.
That assignment was also among more than three dozen that were completed over a three-day period in mid-July, many of them done late at night or early in the morning, finished one right after the other and submitted to the Honolulu Fire Commission July 19.
The completion reports were obtained through a public records request.
Civil Beat asked Camara and Hao to respond to questions about their reports. Instead, department spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy emailed responses she attributed to the HFD’s Training Bureau.
“Online curriculum is not used to license, certify, or qualify an individual for a position,” the email said. “The HFD uses online training assignments to deliver information that refreshes knowledge.”
Most assignments “are not specific to a position or rank,” and there is “no specific policy that requires online assignments to be completed or outlines discipline for failure to do so in a timely manner.”
Even though each has due dates, there is no timeframe for completion of the assignments, said HFD, which can range in duration from just a few minutes and up to several hours and longer.
“However, in most cases the due dates are intended to ensure that assignments are completed in a manageable timeframe, for example (3) assignments per month vs. (36) assignments in December,” according to the email from McCoy. “This philosophy is meant to balance the workload in preparation for the next wave of assignments and only in specific circumstances (when needed as part of a recertification process) is there a definite date that all assignments must be completed by.”
McCoy’s email said that generally none of the online assignments, which are tracked by the department through a software program called Vector Solutions, are mandated by law.
“However, assignments issued via VS are part of a training plan to deliver curriculum necessary to satisfy regulatory requirements,” the email explained. “This can also include curriculum delivered via other methods such as in-person training.”
Charlotte Nekota, chair of the fire commission, declined to comment on whether there were concerns about the completion reports.
But Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association — which is supporting Hao for chief — characterized the online training as neither a criteria for the position of chief nor required for promotion in general at HFD.
Lee, who acknowledged that he was not an expert in the subject matter of assignments, also said there was no way to verify that the training was actually completed.
“Even though you can have the record of finishing assignments up to date, there is still no validation that you actually did it,” he said. “You can sign in, walk away from the computer, push a button. It’s like online school.”
Lee said the priority in hiring a new chief should involve assessing how a candidate has done on the job. In Hao’s case while working in HFD’s operations side over the past eight years, Lee argued that he had demonstrated his commitment to maintaining service on fire trucks, providing necessary supplies and above all serving the public.
“I am surprised that this issue is rising to level that it is,” Lee said of the assignments.
The HFD is accredited as an organization by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and uses the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress as the governance body to administer and issue discipline specific certifications for firefighters and other personnel.
A message left with the congress’s administrative office was not returned Monday.
The city charter is vague on qualifications for a chief, stating only that the applicant “shall have had a minimum of five years of training and experience in a fire department, at least three years of which shall have been in a responsible administrative capacity.”
In addition to the assignment reports and resumes, the Civil Beat records request also produced a “First 90-Day Plan” written and submitted by Camara. It states in part that Camara, if hired as chief, will ensure that training “is meeting the needs of Operations.” The Basic Skills Evaluation Program that began during Camara’s tenure as deputy chief under Neves “will be used to determine the types of specific training that is needed through the department.”
It’s not clear what will happen should the Honolulu Fire Commission remain deadlocked on hiring a new chief. But the Honolulu City Council Public Safety Committee is expected on Wednesday to consider Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s appointment of Dave Matlin, the University of Hawaii director of athletics, to fill a vacancy on the seven-member fire commission.
At the Public Safety Committee’s Aug. 25 hearing on Matlin and the hiring process, Nekota said she was unsure how the process would proceed should Matlin be appointed to the board. But she suggested the process may have to start over.
“In all aspects, that would probably be the most fair thing to do,” she said. “It’s just really a difficult time right now. I don’t have the answer for that. But I think for somebody to come in now and not go through that whole process would be very difficult. I would have a hard time doing that if I were the person coming in.”
She continued: “And then you are only going by public hearsay, media, or whatever, and I don’t know if that’s fair to either candidate. I don’t think it would be. And I think fair is what you want to be. And transparent.”
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