Best Practices

Mayor Stephan K. Yamashiro

Volunteer Fire Division

The County of Hawaii sees a dire need to restructure the organization within the Hawaii County Fire Department in order to implement changes of the innovative and unique Volunteer Fire Division.

The island of Hawaii has a population of 134,000 spread over 4,100 square miles of land with communities spread far apart. The Hawaii County Fire Department currently has 17 career stations and 286 firefighters. This provides minimal fire protection with vast areas having no fire protection at all.

As of December 9, 1992, under then-appointed Fire Chief Nelson Tsuji, a personal commitment was made on behalf of himself and newly-elected Mayor Stephan Yamashiro to expand the present volunteer program. Inherited budget deficit problems, compounded by the closing of three major sugar cane companies, forced the Mayor and Fire Chief to actively seek inexpensive avenues for fire protection.

Expansion of the volunteer firefighter's program was the logical solution. Here was a program that was a branch of the Training Division and the same size. Expansion would not come without problems: Funds would have to be secured for the purchasing of equipment, protective gear, physical examinations, and commercial drivers licenses. The supply of fire trucks, equipment, and protective gear originally passed on to the volunteer division through attrition from the career companies was depleted.

The expansion of the program has produced positive results:

The volunteer fire division is now a formal and separate division in the table of organization.

Hawaii State Legislature passed Bill #191 which places volunteer fire stations on equal status with career fire stations for securing fire insurance coverage.

The number of volunteers stations increased from 10 to 16.

Each company has had a resurgence of volunteers.

The number of personnel has increased from 120 to 248.

A waiting list of 10 communities wanting to form volunteer companies exists.

The County Council approved a separate budget for the volunteer division for the purchasing of equipment, safety gear, physical examinations, and commercial drivers licenses for 150 personnel.

Chief Tsuji applied for Federal Rural Community Fire Protection Grants and successfully secured funds for the purchase of three new fire trucks. All other fire trucks are 1974 models and older with numerous mechanical problems.

Volunteer personnel have repaired four fire vehicles that were stamped for disposal.

Two companies were certified for the first time as Volunteer First Responder Medical Teams.

The Fire Department's Wildland Fire Committee, composed of career and volunteer personnel in a joint effort, has been formed.

The Volunteer Fire Chief's Association has been formed.

The first two volunteer personnel from the State of Hawaii have attended the National Fire Academy in Maryland's Volunteer Incentive Program.

Chief Tsuji received assistance from the State Forestry Service and accepted two surplus fire trucks.

The expansion of the Volunteer Fire Program will benefit all residents of Hawaii County, especially in the unserved rural communities. The increase of stations, apparatus and personnel has provided these areas with increased fire and medical coverage. Career and volunteer stations are strategically located throughout the island.

The expansion of the program was met with mixed reactions. The County Council unaminously approved the volunteer budget and the newly formed companies were welcomed with open arms in the rural communities where fire protection was previously nonexistent. The insurance industry suffered anxiety attacks because of Bill #191. Under this bill, insurance agencies would have to provide coverage in the rural communities where water supply for fire protection is provided by home catchment systems. The Career Firefighter's Union has been less than supportive of the idea for fear of job losses in the troubled economic period.

Our program is unique to the State of Hawaii. The County of Hawaii is the only county (island) that has volunteer firefighters. It has a land area larger than the other six islands of the Hawaiian chain put together, and a limited tax base.

Contact: R. B. Legaspi, (808) 961-8211

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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