Answering Hawaii's Mutual-Aid Challenges: Deploying Resources Across Islands

Hawaii has long been a desirable visitor destination and a very attractive state to live in; its seven islands make up the primary communities of residence and commerce.

However, the unique geographical features of this multi-island state that gives it its appeal also present it with unique emergency-response and mutual-aid challenges. When disaster strikes, local jurisdictions’ first-response communities may be quickly taxed and find themselves faced with events exceeding their resource capacities.

For decades, the sentiment and philosophy within the local fire service has been that we do the best we can with the resources we have. That philosophy is changing, thanks in large part to the efforts being made through the Intrastate Mutual Aid System (IMAS) project.

The various fire service agencies and organizations, including county, state, federal and private fire-protection organizations as well as the Hawaii Fire Chiefs Association, have been working together since 2008, with the support and help of the IAFC, to develop a comprehensive IMAS plan. A tremendous amount of progress has been made, resulting in a plan that was put through a tabletop exercise last year.

Hawaii’s IMAS plan provides local fire service leadership and incident commanders with a set of policies, procedures, guidelines and resource inventories to help address the demands of large-scale or complex incidents.

The intent of the plan is to ensure that Hawaii’s fire and emergency service can move resources in a systematic and efficient manner during a significant incident when local and regional resources are overwhelmed. The plan outlines the process to ensure the state can both move resources between islands and receive resources from outside Hawaii when needed.

Obviously, one of the biggest challenges the program faces is the issue of mobilization of resources across the islands.

Several strategies have been proposed, such as establishing a commercial interisland marine ferry system. This project would entail operating hydrofoil-type vessels that would have large passenger, equipment or vehicle capacity and could easily accommodate the transportation of critical assets between islands. Unfortunately, the project collapsed due to regulatory restrictions, leaving the emergency-response community searching for alternatives.

Through the support and commitment of Hawaii’s State Administration, and in particular of our State Adjutant General and State Department of Civil Defense, the Hawaii IMAS project team is working with the various Department of Defense branches to develop resource mobilization plans.

The Hawaii Air National Guard has been identified as the likeliest and most readily available and capable unit to fill this need. With an air wing unit equipped with a number of airlift platforms, including C-17, KC-130 and C-130 aircraft, there appears to be a solution to the mobilization needs with diversity of capacity and capability.

However, as the IMAS team has found in working with the unit and loadmasters, it’s in the best interest of efficiency and safety to consider preplanning and prepackaging resource loads specific to mission functions. Examples include predetermining and assembling wildland-fire support packages or urban search-and-rescue packages.

These elements or packages would be part of the overall resource inventory list managed and updated by the IMAS Plan management team. Presently. Efforts continue with the revision and finalization of the IMAS Plan with consideration given to those issues or gaps addressed in an earlier exercise. The team is planning for a follow-up exercise this June and hopes to include the integration and participation of the Air National Guard to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness.

One of the key issues helping to support this endeavor is the realization that the first-response community and its members will likely be victims of a large-scale event, such as an earthquake or hurricane; the state’s past history has validated this. Therefore, it’s imperative that the fire service leadership identify and establish a process to address the impact on employees and members through the use of mutual aid.

Hawaii’s emergency managers have embraced this project and view it as support for their departments and operations; the IMAS Plan team is confident that through the collaborative efforts being made, mutual aid within the state will be a reality.

Chief Darryl Oliviera (Ret.) is president of the Hawaii Fire Chiefs Association.

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