HPD patrol districts have been told to refresh their contacts with other emergency agencies.

Honolulu’s emergency managers will be learning from the response to the Maui fires and make adjustments in coming months, its Director of Emergency Management Hiro Toiya said Thursday.

Honolulu City Council members, anxious about Oahu after parts of Maui burned Aug. 8, had called on public safety chiefs to provide an update on the county’s emergency preparedness.

“Our role is to work together with everybody to come up with the plans, and when emergencies happen we convene everybody together so we can have a collective and coordinated response,” Toiya said. “We’re not telling the Fire Department which direction to pull the hose for a fire.”

“Whether it’s here, or Maui, or the mainland, there are lessons to be learned and we will be a better city for it,” Honolulu Emergency Services Department Director Jim Ireland said.

DEM Director Hiro Toiya told Honolulu City Council that emergency services on Oahu would take lessons from the response to the Maui fires. (Hawaii News Now)

The biggest issue in responding to wildfires is access, Honolulu Fire Department Chief Sheldon Hao told council members. HFD recently purchased and now awaits a twin-engine helicopter, which would allow them to carry 300 gallons of water, tripling the capability of their single-engine helicopter, he said.

HFD currently has three aircraft.

“One of the best things that people can do is clear their home, within five feet, remove all combustible items,” Hao said. He added that extending that “defensible space” out to 30 feet can help even more.

Ernie Lau, Manager and Chief Engineer for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, warned that climate change is bringing new challenges the city will need to prepare for. “We need to really expand and actually develop wildland fire plans that are in close coordination to support the first responders.”

The department, which uses electricity to pump most of its water, has been working to create a backup power system of 13 generators, Lau said. Two more are in the works.

Honolulu Fire Department HFD rescue truck Waianae stock file photo government
The biggest issue in responding to wildfires is often access, Honolulu Fire Department Chief Sheldon Hao told council members. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Backup Warning Systems

When emergencies occur, the Honolulu Emergency Management Agency activates an emergency operations center, which serves as a central coordination hub, Toiya said.

The department then assembles its public safety partners in the city to respond. The department’s warning mechanisms include a variety of alert systems, like the opt-in mobile notification system, HNL Info, and sirens.

“For instance, if a tsunami is coming, then we have protocols to activate the sirens and also to activate the wireless emergency alert and the Emergency Alert System,” Toiya said. The wireless emergency alert is built into every smartphone and can provide geographically targeted notifications, he said.

The EAS broadcasts a message over radio and on TV screens. The department relies on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for a backup warning system.

If a warning doesn’t come from the National Weather Service or the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, first responders in the field would be the ones to signal that an emergency is unfolding, Toiya said. If an evacuation is called for, those first responders would go door-to-door or use their PA systems to tell people to leave.

Evacuation orders during disasters would usually be given by first responders in the field, but if there’s a greater need, warning sirens would be used on Oahu. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat)

“If the incident exceeds the ability for the first responders to do that in the field, and there’s a greater need, to bring in the bigger tools like the sirens and the cell-phone alerts, then we will coordinate that with the first responders in the EOC,” Toiya said.

In case of a catastrophe, the Honolulu Police Department would be responsible for maintaining law and order, warning and evacuating people, protecting city facilities, securing the evacuation area and shelters, and directing surrounding traffic, said Deputy Chief Keith Horikawa. HPD also would provide helicopters to assist.

Officers receive disaster training as recruits but in subsequent years only receive about an hour of refresher training on emergency management, response and preparedness, Horikawa said.

“We had a discussion the other day with their patrol district as far as making sure that they reaffirm their contacts and relationships with the local first responder agencies in their particular districts,” he said, referring to fire stations, EMS locations, and also the military.

Council members in the Public Safety Committee kept discussion to a minimum and chair Val Okimoto said council members would submit written questions to department heads as needed.

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