A draft charter amendment would require at least five years of experience for the job.

Following the deadly fire in Lahaina last month, Honolulu is moving to institute baseline hiring standards for the position of Oahu’s emergency manager.

The job currently has no minimum qualifications under city law, and Honolulu Councilman Matt Weyer said that needs to change.

“I do think we’ve seen the importance of the role with recent events and other disasters we’ve had,” he said Thursday. “It’s just ensuring the person leading the department is someone with the experience needed to keep our community safe.”

Honolulu City Councilman for district 2 Matt Weyer listens to the department of transportation director J. Roger Morton discuss restricted parking zones Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Honolulu City Council members Val Okimoto and Matt Weyer are proposing several resolutions to make Oahu more prepared for fires and other crises. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Introduced by Weyer and City Council Chair Tommy Waters on Wednesday, the measure would insert several requirements for the job into the Honolulu Charter, essentially the county’s constitution.

It calls for:

  • A bachelor’s degree in emergency management, public health, public administration, or a relevant field. Advanced degrees or certifications in related fields would be preferred.
  • At least five years of training or experience in emergency management or public health – three years of which must have been in a “responsible administrative capacity, demonstrating leadership and the ability to coordinate complex operations involving numerous agencies and personnel.”
  • At least three years of experience in leading emergency management at the local, state or federal level.
  • A demonstrated capability to collaborate with local, state, and federal agencies during emergency situations.

If approved by the City Council, the measure would be put to a yes or no vote on ballots in next year’s election and could take effect in 2025.

The proposal comes after public outrage with the performance of Herman Andaya, the former director of the Maui Emergency Management Agency. As the head of MEMA, it was Andaya’s responsibility to manage preparedness efforts, establish evacuation routes and marshall resources before and during a disaster.

Herman Andaya stands at the podium in the Mayors conference room in Wailuku
Herman Andaya was in charge of leading Maui’s emergency preparedness and response efforts. He had little relevant experience before taking the job. (HNN/2023)

Instead, the county was left unprepared when hurricane-force winds rapidly spread multiple fires on Maui on Aug. 8. With little to no warning the fire was coming, an inferno in Lahaina killed several dozen people and destroyed a large swath of the historic town. As Lahaina burned, Andaya was on Oahu for a conference.

As previously reported by Civil Beat, Andaya had no formal education or expertise in emergency preparedness or response before being hired to lead MEMA. He was previously the chief of staff to former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and was educated in political science and the law.

Andaya resigned last month amid public outcry about his lack of qualifications and his decision not to sound emergency alert sirens that could’ve given people the cue to escape.

The qualifications now being considered in Honolulu would put the emergency manager job in line with other key public safety jobs in the county government. Currently, the director of emergency services, the police chief and the fire chief all need to have at least five years of training and experience in their field before leading their departments.

Hiro Toiya, director of the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, had years of experience in the field before he was promoted to his current role. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Weyer emphasized that he has no concerns with Honolulu’s current emergency manager, Hiro Toiya, but said establishing qualifications in Honolulu would be prudent going forward.

Toiya has worked for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management for more than a decade, starting as a training officer and working his way up. Previously, he was a public health preparedness planner for the state, which involved emergency preparedness work.

He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, technical training as an emergency medical technician and a master’s degree in health systems management. As a student at Tulane University in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, he said he also volunteered to help people at the Astrodome and other shelters.

In an interview with Civil Beat last month, he said he relies on that training in his work today.

“My experience has been useful to me,” he said.

Meanwhile, the City Council is also proposing other fire preparedness measures. Resolution 23-241 would urge the city administration to form a working group to recommend longterm emergency preparedness steps regarding residential areas. And Resolution 23-240 would ask the administration to include items that address emergency preparedness in its annual budget recommendations.

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