THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective-Honolulu

By Joseph Straw
 
 
What is the biggest challenge in your office’s mission?
 
One of our greatest issues is always that of communication, because we’re all island communities. The closest island is roughly 100 miles away and we don’t have a ferry system unfortunately, so we’re really limited in travel to another island or county—it’s only by plane. So communication with our partners is an issue. Specifically interoperable communication is the greatest challenge, since information is so perishable. We do utilize the various means, obviously e-mail, and voice communications through our radio system, and through Internet protocol-based radio, but that system is limited because it works best for maybe one or two conversations or participants, where it doesn’t work well when we have a dozen or more people trying to have a conversation. Most group-type meetings are being conducted using the webinar process.
 
What is the regions’ greatest success in the emergency management mission?
 
Communication is one of our greatest challenges it’s also where we’ve had some great successes. Throughout the state we’re working on a 700-800 MHz radio system that all of the counties as well as the state will operate on as our baseline communications system. We’re  replacing our 50-year-old infrastructure, specifically our radio towers. It’s an ambitious five- to eight-year program and we’re going on year three. So every year the plan is to retrofit or newly construct or replace two of the infrastructure towers that will allow the communications on the island. But concurrently all the other jurisdictions of Hawaii are similarly expanding their systems. So through the mutual aid process, we’ll be able to establish interoperability.
 
Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how is your office adjusting.
 
That’s a universal challenge, and I would say it spans all organizations regardless of whether you’re in emergency management. Budgets are being reduced. We have been able to make adjustments by reprioritizing certain initiatives, but I guess our ultimate goal is not to stop any particular initiative, but to take what I call smaller bites. But technological enhancement is something we have to continue, because both technology and the challenges it helps us address are ever-evolving.
 
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
 
Our working relationship has been fabulous. Many military folks live out in the community, and they understand the interdependence that we have. So there is no question in terms of them being there in a time of need. The issue has always been timeliness. Unfortunately we are in the midst of several conflicts abroad, and the preponderance of military folks is committed in direct support of that. But we can still rely on the federal assets here, and one particular area that we particularly depend on is in addressing wildfires. Again, we’re an island community. There are very limited assets.
 
Unfortunately one of our significant challenges is that because we’re an island community, there are certain very remote areas that we have access problems with. Military leadership collaborates with our office, and often they are able to commit their resources because adjacent lands are federally owned. One of the great assets the military has provided is helicopter support. We don’t have these massive fires like California, but on an island a fire of say, 300 acres, is significant to us. And because it’s so remote, the only assets that we can count on are the military helicopters. And military aircraft have a significant water-carrying capacity. Our helicopters basically carry 100 to 200 gallons, whereas CH-47 Chinooks or others have the capacity to carry about 1,400 gallons. So when you drop that water it can be a ten-fold greater impact.
 
Does your office engage the private sector? If so, how?
 
Definitely, especially during incidents certain private industry representatives are invited and they have seats in our emergency operations center. The most notable of course is the utilities: power, gas, some of the communications, to include our cell phone providers. In addition to that our significant other partners include the folks who help us with shelter management, which is run by the Red Cross. And the partnering extends beyond that as situations develop and the scope of the response increases, we definitely will reach out to the public because they have the readily-available assets. We do have 3,000-4,000 first responders, but beyond a certain capacity we have to rely on the private trucking companies, the other folks who provide skilled technology support to hopefully respond and eliminate the hazardous incidents if you will.
 
What are your office’s primary goals going forward?
 
Improving intergovernmental relations. And there are other areas that we need to constantly improve on. Certainly exercises—whether tabletop or functional exercises—always lead to identification of areas in which we can improve. Securing preparatory commitments is often a great challenge here; making sure that we’ll have a capability provided when we need it. Like I said one of our significant challenges is that we’re an island community. We depend on constant in-flow of supplies from sources outside of Hawaii, and should an incident occur, we will definitely need help from external support organizations. While that help will ultimately come, the question is always how soon. So in terms of self-sustainment we all have to work together, both governments and private industry, to bring ourselves up to a reasonable point of recovery until the external help arrives.

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