Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2022|
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A fire truck is parked inside the Kaumana Fire Station in Hilo on Thursday.
A county audit of the Hawaii Fire Department reveals it’s beleaguered by a shortage of workers and resources.
The Office of the County Auditor released last week the results of a five-month study of HFD, conducted to determine whether county resources are being utilized effectively.
Its findings were mixed.
Although HFD created a strategic plan for its operations for 2015 to 2020, the audit determined that several of the goals outlined in that plan remain unmet. Significantly, HFD set a goal in the strategic plan that it would achieve accreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. So far, HFD has not done so.
Furthermore, the audit identified several shortcomings in how HFD manages its existing resources.
According to the audit, HFD maintains no vehicle repair or replacement schedule, which leaves department resources focused on repairing broken-down machinery rather than conducting preventative maintenance.
Similarly, the audit found several health and safety hazards at multiple fire stations due to poorly maintained equipment, such as leaking roofs, broken garage doors, vents that do not extract vehicle exhaust from station garages, station generators used far beyond their reasonable lifespan, missing or broken smoke detectors, and more.
The audit also determined that HFD consistently exceeds its salary and wage budget because of excessive overtime — spending $7.8 million on overtime alone in fiscal year 2021 — has a limited volunteer force, and has inconsistent or insufficient training programs.
Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said the results of the audit are not unexpected, adding that he agrees that those problems do exist.
“I can’t say it’s a glowing review, but it’s good to have this frank assessment,” Todd told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday.
Todd, who became fire chief in April 2021, said many of the challenges facing the department stem from the sheer size of Hawaii County.
“The issue with the Big Island is that it’s big,” Todd said. “And we’re spread out all across the island.”
The audit compares certain statistics of HFD to other mainland fire departments serving comparable populations. The population HFD serves is comparable to that of Salt Lake City, at around 200,000 people. However, the Salt Lake City Fire Department operates within a 97 square-mile area, while HFD’s service area is 4,028 square miles.
Because of the large distances involved, Todd said HFD personnel are stretched thin, with some of the department’s 20 fire stations only having one or two firefighters on call at any given time.
“A lot of our chief officers are stuck making sure they get all the paperwork done, and we can’t concentrate on things like growth or efficiency,” he said.
However, Todd said he believes many other county departments are in the same boat.
“Obviously, I can only speak for the Fire Department, but reading between the lines and listening to the meetings, it sounds like all the other departments have pretty tight resources, too,” Todd said.
Todd said there is no single solution to HFD’s woes. Even if HFD had the money to boost personnel numbers right now, any new hires will require at least a year of training, he said, so the department won’t see any improvements for 18 months.
But, barring any sudden influx of cash, Todd said HFD will work on a new master plan that will include a Standards of Cover document, which will analyze where the greatest call volume is on the island so that resources can be allocated most efficiently.
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