Saturday, April 17, 1999

Fire Dept. doubles
response for safety

A trial program incurs expenses
little more than some extra gasoline

By James K. Song


You've probably been hearing more sirens lately because the Fire Department is sending twice as many firetrucks to each routine house fire.

For the past two weeks, the Honolulu Fire Department has been sending six fire companies -- four engines and two ladder trucks -- to every structure fire on Oahu, in a six-month pilot program mandated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The whole army's coming," said Battalion Chief Robert Davis.

In the past, only two engines and one ladder truck would be dispatched to a structure fire. More units would be dispatched only if the responding companies called for backup.

Now a second alarm is automatically made, and an additional three units are sent to every structure fire.

"The rationale is, if we don't need them, we can always call them back," Davis said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."

The increased number of firefighters at every call will not cost much more besides the expense of extra gasoline, Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi added. No additional personnel will need to be hired.

Sending more crews to fires has its downside: Some areas at times will not have as many firetrucks for coverage, and more engines will be shifted from station to station.

For example, a minor fire yesterday at Pier 35 drew engines from Kakaako and South Beretania Street. While those engines were responding to the fire, engines from neighboring stations were brought in to cover their areas.

But shifting crews is very common.

"The public can feel safe because we have the crew to cover them," Davis said.

The OSHA rules also require the department to:

Have a safety officer on scene to make sure all equipment and personnel are working correctly.

Follow a two-in/two-out rule. Before entering a burning house or business, there must be two firefighters outside to make a possible rescue for every two firefighters who go in.

Firefighters say they like the system because it's safer to have a large number of units available at the scene rather than calling in extra units later.

"It's being more proactive and gets them rolling," Leonardi said, noting the new standards are for the safety of his 1,139 firefighters. "Fires are labor intensive. The faster we get at it, the less damage loss you will have."

Leonardi can appreciate improved safety. When he joined the department in 1971, about 150 firefighter deaths nationally each year were common. Currently, the number has dropped below 100.

He added that firefighters were not required to wear a breathing apparatus when he started, and many veteran and retired firefighters now are suffering from respiratory problems.

"We had no rules," Leonardi said. "We just went in there with a hose."

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