Security Management interviews Melvin S. Kaku, director of the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management.
Melvin S. Kaku is director of the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, a post he has held since December 2007. Previously, Kaku served as the city’s director of Department of Transportation Services, where he oversaw implementation of the city’s expanded multimodal transportation system, which included a fixed guideway rail program and the introduction of the city’s commuter ferry, which entered service in 2007. Before becoming transportation director, Kaku was the director of the Environmental Planning Division of the Pacific Division of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, based at Pearl Harbor. In this capacity, he was planning head of Pearl Harbor’s emergency response team, overseeing preparations for environmental incidents. As an Army Reserve officer, Kaku has supervised the emergency preparedness for his commanding general, and is directly involved in planning for military involvement in responding to natural disasters and civil emergencies. Kaku is a native of Hilo and earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Hawaii.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
I am a member of the mayor’s cabinet, and my responsibility is of course emergency management for the city and county of Honolulu. On behalf of the city I oversee coordination and collaboration among all of the city and county’s first responders as well as second-tier responders. We coordinate with our non-governmental organizations such as Red Cross, the Humane Society, as well as other government entities, both state and federal.
I’m the chair for our regional emergency management planning entity, the Honolulu Urban Area Working Group (HUAWG), but I also chair the committee that oversees grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program. In addition to that I chair one of the newer programs, overseeing the federal the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant Program (RCPGP), which brings together our jurisdiction, with the state and other municipal governments.
What threats and assets make your region unique?
Two of our significant concerns are tsunamis and hurricanes. The tsunami hazard has been in place here in Hawaii for so long that most folks, if you say the word tsunami, they’re up and they’re moving. Since 1946 we’ve had over 220 fatalities here in the state of Hawaii, including six on Oahu. So people thankfully people are aware of the threat even though we don’t get major tsunami events that often. We do back that up of course with public education. Half the year we educate on tsunami hazards, half we educate on hurricanes, and we keep that up every year.
And broader concern is that we’re an island community and relatively isolated. Our closest connection to the mainland is essentially about five hours by air or 2,500 miles away. We have 1.2 million residents just on our island alone. We are a very, very large population on a very, very small footprint, only 600 square miles of landmass. And on a given day we have at least 30,000 transient tourists coming into Honolulu International Airport.
What warning systems and procedures are in place to mitigate the effects of a tsunami?
Under our existing system, the notifications are generated by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which is headquartered here on Oahu. They issue the watches and the warnings. Based on their advisories, we provide an island-wide notification. Those notifications, however, are synchronized with the state and the other counties, because obviously tsunamis will affect the whole state.
Our legacy notification method is a siren system that right now consists of about 181 pole-mounted sirens made by Federal Signal. Our county, along with all of the other counties, tests them regularly on the first working day of the month at 11:45 a.m. We are continuing to expand our coverage on the island because as the population grows and development continues we have to expand our system.
We also have an emergency alert system (EAS) operated in conjunction with the media. As in areas of the country that face other threats, there are radio announcements and a ticker that goes across TV broadcasts. In addition to that we always have what we call the ground notifications where we send out our first responders to go house to house. We are also developing a free text message alert system for the public and government stakeholders.
We discussed community tsunami exercises, but a lot of liability concerns got in the way. So for tsunami events we two statewide tabletop exercises a year, and for hurricanes we do one large exercise. In addition to that, we have a working relationship on an annual basis with the state Department of Education. With the coastal schools we participate in the local tsunami drills. They go through a similar notification and actually walk the students through the entire evacuation sequence.
How does regional planning and grant administration function?
With regard to the HUAWG and the UASI, the Chair’s responsibility is to hold periodic meetings. And generally those are quarterly meetings. Essentially I will conduct a meeting, depending on what the topic is, generally we talk about all the projects that we are working on to assess progresses. The UASI is a little different because that particular structure is more geared toward our first responders and the associated second-tier responders. The third organization which is the RCPGP executive committee made up of 18 individuals, primarily key individuals from around the state and from state government. We hold quarterly meetings also, and I provide the overall administrative support through my grant staff.
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.