Hawaii's idyllic setting belies an environment that makes rescue operations uniquely challenging.
Being a search-and-rescue firefighter on the Hawaiian island of Oahu has its upsides. One is the variety of rescues. Firefighters may retrieve victims using high-angle rescues in an urban area on one shift, and during the next they may fly helicopters, ride jet skis in high surf or rappel into mountain canyons to find the lost.
"It is adventurous work," said Honolulu Fire Department Chief Ken Silva.
Oahu's environment makes the job of an HFD search-and-rescue firefighter particularly unique compared with the mainland United States, Silva said. The all-hazard HFD serves the entire island, about 600 square miles. That includes responding to incidents in the Pacific Ocean or along the island's 227 miles of shoreline. At the same time, the department services urban as well as rural, often mountainous areas that house a population of about 900,000.
"Honolulu has hundreds high rises in the urban core, including transient populations staying in hotels," he said. "The island also has wildland areas and our summer months are exceptionally busy for us in battling fire in the wildland-urban interface."
The department also responds to incidents on the island's U.S. military bases. Silva said the department has mutual-aid agreements with the Federal Fire Department that protects military bases, such as the Pearl Harbor Naval Station. It also works alongside the Hickam Air Force Base and state of Hawaii's Air Rescue Fire (ARF) departments. HFD's two, five-person technical search-and-rescue teams respond to any mountain, ocean or other rescues on the military bases, as Federal Fire and ARF do not have rescue companies.
As a result, the department's 1,200 firefighters must be able to handle myriad types of fire calls and search-and-rescue operations, Silva said. They also must meet several qualifications mainland firefighters may not. Since the island is surrounded by water, firefighters must be what Silva dubbed "excellent watermen." He said that many of the department's firefighters are born on Oahu or other Hawaiian islands, spending their youth surfing, kayaking and even scuba diving.
Still, all firefighters must pass a swimming competency test and be trained for rescues in an ocean environment.
"Shoreline companies also are trained in watercraft operation," Silva said.
Indeed, HFD firefighters must wear several hats. As a result, cross-agency training and everyday fire service training become essential, said Bttn. Chief Jeff Farris, a 27-year fire service veteran and chief of special operations.
Farris oversees the hazmat and fire boat programs, as well as the aircraft section of the HFD. He also plans search-and-rescue squad training, which covers high-angle rescues, working aboard aircraft and watercraft, scuba diving, and using thermal-imaging or hydraulic extraction equipment.
Farris said firefighters also need basic firefighting training on apparatus and equipment. They also must be proficient in basic life support skills because a rescue squad has to package the patient, initial triage and then bring the patient to the ambulance, he said.
Training is especially important with special operation companies, which often perform technical rescues. While Farris may advise HFD firefighters on how to attack an incident, he also spends time listening to his field personnel. In fact, he depends on his team's knowledge of the island to determine appropriate search-and-rescue strategies.
"It's important to tap into local knowledge," he said. "Our firefighters are watermen, comfy on mountain trails and chiefs need to solicit their advice during training and at incidents."
Working on ocean and mountain rescues takes a different skill set compared with an urban high-angle rescues, so it's no wonder that those who serve the department usually are locals, said Capt. Alan Carvalho, a 22-year veteran of the department. In fact, growing up on the island was crucial to his success as an HFD firefighter. Carvalho said the island was his playground as a child. He surfed the ocean, paddled outrigger canoes around the island and hiked throughout its backcountry.
Such local knowledge and life experience made him uniquely suited to lead his search-and-rescue team at incidents, Carvalho said. He said the team works the full range of technical rescues, from structural fires in high-rises and houses as well as industrial accidents. Search-and-rescue personnel also must be versed in water — surface and subsurface — and wilderness rescues using high-angle techniques.
"We can pull someone out of 20- to 30-foot surf one minute and change from shorts to long pants and gear up to get someone trapped in the mountains," he said.
Carvalho said his team knows the island so well that members often recognize the environment in which a lost person might be located just by a description of a cliff or a waterfall. When boaters or paddlers are distressed, rescuers are familiar with the island's wind patterns and currents. This lets rescuers predict the direction in which a victim may be floating, whether out to a reef or out into the ocean, he said.
"Recently we had a GPS location from a cell phone that came in from a mile off shore from a paddle boater," Carvalho said. "We knew the currents and where to look. And by the time we found them, we were right. They had drifted more than three miles off shore."
There's never a dull moment, Carvalho joked. But he said in all seriousness that the island's large tourist population makes many rescues more challenging. Visitors often are inexperienced in the mountains and unfamiliar with the island's trail systems, which can become treacherous at times. The island also has varied wind conditions that can rapidly change a calm ocean into dangerously high surf.
"Water conditions can be pretty mean — and then change rapidly when the high surf comes in," Carvalho said. "Such varied conditions make our rescues very challenging."
When visitors become lost, they often are unable to provide their locations, Carvalho said. They may lack preplanned safety plans, which are recommended prior to hiking out into any backcountry area. They forget their cell phones, fail to pack water or don't tell a friend where they entered a trail system and their expected exit time.
"We have treacherous terrain, and it's easy to get disorientated deep in the valleys," Carvalho said. "Visitors can fall off a cliff or get far enough into the mountains that there isn't any phone coverage. People are simply not prepared for the outdoor — and often dangerous — environments on the island of Oahu."
So the department built a unique partnership with local trail clubs and federal agencies to help the department find the lost. Silva said the search-and-rescue team works with lifeguards, surfers, mountain trail clubs and Department of Land and Natural Resources rangers. The organizations have people on the ground who know the area, and information and communication with such organizations have lead to successful rescues, he said.
"We have a strong relationship with organizations that have boots-on-the ground experience and can provide us with additional information," Silva said. "So we have different means besides traditional communication systems for finding those who are lost."
The department also turns to other agencies for apparatus and personnel, including the island's National Guard and Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), as well as the aforementioned mutual-aid help from military fire departments. In fact, the organizations meet regularly to hold tabletop and live exercises, often in partnership with other state and local agencies.
"We are unique because we are on this little dot on the Pacific [ocean], so our working relationships with our other public-safety entities are important," Silva said. "It goes back to the fact that because our resources are finite" — it will take anywhere from 48 or more hours for help to arrive from the mainland — "we have to make sure we do exercises and develop relationships so we can support each other."
Always on call
The HFD search-and-rescue team is always on call. When an incident does occur, the closest fire station is dispatched in order to assess a scene. Information gathered by the on-scene engine company helps the search-and-rescue team determine apparatus to deploy, be it a fire truck, helicopter or watercraft, Silva said. If the call was made using a GPS-equipped cell phone, the team can track the caller's longitude and latitude, which often comes in handy if he is drifting out into the ocean.
"It lets us pinpoint a user's location," he said.
HFD firefighters carry 800 MHz two-way radios to communicate on the ground. Carvalho admitted there are many dead spots on the 800 MHz system. But the network still is essential to operations because the department often needs to communicate incident data with other local, state and federal agencies. For example, the HFD often teams with the Coast Guard and the Department of Natural Resources on search-and-rescue operations.
As a backup to the two-way radio, each search-and-rescue firefighter carries a Nextel cellular phone. The 800 MHz system many times is dependable, but Carvalho said where the network has dead spots cell phones work. In addition, cell phones let field personnel contact the caller directly. The firefighter's phones are built with GPS location chips, which let officers track their teams on the ground.
"I can know where each member of the team is located as well as contact them directly with incident data," Carvalho said.
Silva said the communication systems are crucial to operations. The city and county have been installing additional radio towers to remote areas to improve communication on the 800 MHz network. However, the technology becomes irrelevant when teams do rescues in deep canyons, where steep cliffs may drop off 1,600 feet.
"If victims and firefighters are in that really remote area, I don't care what kind of radio system you have, it's not going to be able to pick them up," he said.
The department also can deploy a mobile command vehicle armed with wireless communication technology to command an incident on site.
"If it was a large-scale rescue for a prolonged period of time, we do have a mobile command vehicle with a lot of communication and status boards, and we can revamp our chief structure and house everyone in that structure," he said. "The remote post is often used as an emergency operations center and can help us handle an incident in a remote area."
In addition to enhancing communications, an island environment means more money is needed for specialized equipment, which falls under department's $100 million annual budget, Silva said. Such equipment includes two rescue boats specifically assigned to the search-and-rescue companies. In addition, the department recently purchased Yamaha jet skis used on the Pacific Ocean for near-shore water rescues.
For sea and mountain rescue missions, two NOTAR helicopters owned by the fire department are deployed. NOTAR, an acronym for No Tail Rotor, is a helicopter anti-torque system that eliminates the use of the tail rotor on a helicopter for safer operation.
"The helicopter, like the ones that preceded it, continues to prove its value time and time again during mountain and ocean rescues and firefighting surveillance and water drops," Silva said. "Without the tail rotor, it makes it a lot safer for the type of operations we do."
The rescue helicopters are piloted by an HFD firefighter for all search-and-rescue missions. Firefighters jump from the aircraft into the water or are lowered via a net. They also rappel from the helicopter to attach victims to a rescue harness and fly them out of harm's way, Silva said.
The department also uses the helicopter for mountain rescues, often in remote areas. In those scenarios, rescue personal rappel out of the helicopter to the ground and begin search-and-rescue operations.
"It depends on location and injuries on how we are going to extricate them," he said.
Silva added that each rescue is unique and often they are at the mercy of the island. But a well-equipped and well-trained team of search-and-rescue personnel leads to many successful rescues.
"We have to ensure our entire personnel are properly trained, equipped and given the correct communications equipment before an incident happens to give all the best chance to be successful," he said.