Instead, Hawaii has a relatively powerless State Fire Council. But fire agencies want that to change.

Hawaii is the only state without a fire marshal’s office, and the recent Maui fires that killed at least 115 people are galvanizing fire officials to reinstate the office disbanded in 1979.  

Such offices typically play an integral role coordinating fire prevention between local agencies.

The mandates and powers of fire marshals vary from state to state. Their duties normally cover fire investigation and prevention across urban and rural landscapes, regulating fire codes and increasing public awareness of risks. 

Maui firefighter watches brush fire along Pulehu Road, Maui.
Fire departments across Hawaii have been tasked with responsibilities once held by a State Fire Marshal’s Office after it was abolished in 1979. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

But in Hawaii for the past 44 years, those responsibilities have largely been left to the county departments. 

The rest was left to the State Fire Council, formed in 1979. Its primary and broad role was to develop and support Hawaii’s state and county fire services to better protect the state.

Until this year, when two additional representatives from state fire services were added, the fire council has been overseen by the four county fire chiefs and run by two part-time administrators. They focused primarily on the adoption of the Hawaii State Fire Code and facilitating training courses for firefighters.

But the council, under the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, lacks the funding and staff to match what fire marshals do in the rest of the U.S.

“What it means essentially is that we have a very, very stripped down and very, very basic version of a state fire marshal,” Hawaii County Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd said. Todd has chaired the council since 2022.

Marshaling Fire

Lawmakers in 1978, following advice from the Government Organization Commission, agreed the Hawaii State Fire Marshal’s Office was redundant for a host of reasons.

The Legislature argued that state and county fire protection standards created unnecessary overlap, left fire chiefs accountable to both the state and their counties. Lawmakers said that the coordination that fire marshals provide on the mainland was irrelevant in Hawaii.

With the renewed awareness of fire dangers, it has now become apparent that the move left holes in state and county fire enforcement.

Wildfire prevention is one role that many state fire marshal’s offices play countrywide. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

One example: The fire alarm system at Konawaena Elementary School on the Big Island was broken down for two years in breach of state fire codes, KHON2 News reported.

But the county fire department couldn’t force the school to fix it because it did not have jurisdiction over schools run by the state Department of Education.

“Having state inspectors is something that a state fire marshal’s office could assist with,” Todd said.

Fire marshals in the other states are often charged with heading up investigations, which in Hawaii are left to the county fire departments’ prevention bureaus.

What A Fire Marshal Could Do

State fire marshals are essential to cutting the risk of wildfire, according to Butch Browning, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

A fire marshal’s office would address wildfire hazards — especially where urban areas border land prone to fire — through vegetation management, among other things.

The state has its own firefighters in the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Department of Transportation. But it does not have a fire marshal. (Courtesy: DLNR)

But they also play a key role ensuring a solid plan for responding to fires and other natural disasters, as well as the implementation of the state fire codes.

“It cultivates consistency and uniformity in your state,” Browning said.

A marshal’s office also plays an integral role in coordinating a response, said Browning, the former Louisiana state fire marshal.

Times have changed since 1978, when the Legislature abolished the Hawaii state fire marshal. The Legislature found that “there is not the compelling need for state-wide coordination of fire departments” because, unlike on the mainland, the counties are separated by water.

But in light of the Aug. 8 wildfires, coordination is just what is needed, Browning said — even beyond state lines.

A fire marshal’s office would be able to consider measures such as caches of extra equipment in each county to be used by reinforcements coming in from neighbor islands or even other states during emergencies.

Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura answers a question during a press conference Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura testified in support of studying Hawaii’s need for a state fire marshal’s office. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

County fire departments and chiefs already have an outsized mandate.

“The reality of it is that I do have my own organization of 600 employees … that takes up 50, 60 hours of my week,” Todd said. “I really don’t have the time to focus in on state level problems or issues.”

Nor does the council have staff to effectively fulfill its fire protection mandate, according to Celeste Nip of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association.

“There really is not enough of a dedicated staff to do the work of what a fire marshal’s office should be doing,” Nip said.

Making A Marshal

The exact duties of a state fire marshal would have to be worked out.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals has already offered to help Hawaii if the state asks.

“It’s a laundry list of what can be done,” Browning said.

The Legislature considered bills in both 2021 and 2022 to create “a fire safety working group” to consider the pros and cons of a state fire marshal’s office. Both were nixed. One was killed by the House Finance Committee over concerns about the cost.

The Legislature did include representatives from two other state agencies on the fire council this year — the state airports fire chief and the state fire protection forester from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

At the council’s quarterly meeting last week, Chief Todd of Hawaii County indicated that a bill calling for a reassessment of the state’s need for a fire marshal would be introduced in the coming legislative session.

The recent wildfires make its passage more likely this time around, Todd said.

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