Kenneth Silva


POSTED: Friday, July 17, 2009

Honolulu Fire Chief Kenneth Silva believes that consolidating the city's fire, medical and ocean rescue services would improve public safety, and he's working hard to address all concerns so that the long-considered plan finally gets off the ground.

“;The main thing is that all the stakeholders are involved as we move forward,”; said Silva, who has been chief since 2006. “;Communication and cooperation are so important.”;

The City Council killed a proposed merger in 1996 and the issue arose again briefly in 2005. In February, Mayor Mufi Hannemann resurrected the idea, appointing a panel to explore the potential of saving money — by combining dispatch centers, supplies, equipment and training — without compromising health and safety.

Silva said a well-executed merger could actually improve public safety, by speeding response times, building on the strengths of each division and preserving first-responder jobs.

The 49-year-old chief oversees about 1,150 uniformed and civilian HFD employees, having moved up through the ranks of a department he joined nearly 28 years ago.

“;It's a wonderful career. There's never been a single day that I woke up and didn't want to go to work,”; said Silva, who has a master's degree in public administration from the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

The Kamehameha Schools graduate is the father of two teenagers with his wife, Terri. He spends his sparse free time on “;family activities”; such as the kids' sports, church and going golfing or to the beach.

He's chairman of the Hawaii State Fire Council and serves on the boards of the state chapter of the American Red Cross, the nonprofit Honolulu Firefighters Foundation and the church council of New Hope Christian Fellowship.

Silva spoke to the Star-Bulletin Wednesday night about fire safety, the proposed merger and dealing with tight budgets.

Question: Summer is the peak time for brush fires. How is this season going?

Answer: Just last week and this week we've had some pretty large brush fires in the Waiau area ... we had a brush fire that concerned us because it had multiple starting points, so we are concerned that it is not accidental, that it might be intentional.

Q: Does financial stress increase arson?

A: It can. We do a lot of tracking of national trends, and typically Hawaii lags behind the mainland a bit. What they are experiencing now in cities with a lot of layoffs is ... a lot more auto fires, people who can't make their payments and are trying to get the insurance out of it ... So those are the types of things that our fire investigators are on the lookout for.

Q: What is the department doing to cope with the tight city budget?

A: The budget ... was tight on the previous go-around, and because of that and knowing that the property valuations were going to be less for this year, we had already tightened up our belts. We had pushed back the purchasing of some of our capital equipment, pushed back our recruit class, we're not filling vacancies that are non-essential. We are very concerned about all our training programs and about how we do business, especially on the overtime. We're tracking everything very, very closely.

Q: What's the status of the mayor's proposed merger (which would consolidate the city's Emergency Medical Services Division and Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division within the Honolulu Fire Department)?

A: We're moving forward with all the stakeholders involved ... Of the metro-sized departments (nationwide), about 75 percent run the emergency medical service (from) the fire department. It has been a major push nationally for a long time. I'm sensitive to the fact that there have been a couple of runs at this in the past and there's been opposition to it, but I think that if everyone is involved in the process then we can all understand the issues involved, the concerns, but also the opportunities to improve public safety and also save some money ...

...Q: What are the benefits?

A: There are (about) 19 EMS units that are located around the island, and we have 42 fire stations that are located around the island ... The goal is for us to get the most-qualified help to the most people we can in the shortest amount of time ... Whether you are talking about fires or medical assistance, response time is critical. Our response time is four to six minutes and if we can get to anywhere in the urban core in that time then I think we can make a difference in terms of outcomes on the EMS front.

Q: What about saving money?

A: The primary benefit is for service delivery, public safety, and I think a secondary benefit is that we can develop some efficiencies, some economies of scale. There is some overlap. There are three separate training divisions, for example. EMS can fit with us; we have room. So if they're paying $500,000 in rent at Kakaako, they can save that money and the city can rent out that facility and make a little money. ... We have a huge mechanic shop, enough room for everybody.

Q: What is the opposition?

A: You're mixing cultures, so there's fear of change, fear of the unknown, (intensified by rumors) that are not true, especially about losing jobs. The front-line responders shouldn't be fearful of losing their jobs. For the union folks, what we're saying is that if we had 80,000 calls for EMS last year then we're going to have that many next year, too. On the front lines, we'll need everybody ...

...Q: What about off the front lines?

A: There is some overlap in the administrative side. We're looking at that.

Q: What's the timeline?

A: The initial stage was the mayor's citizens advisory council. It decided that the merger proposal has merit and recommended moving forward, involving all the stakeholders. That's where we are now. ... We (Silva and Dr. Elizabeth Char, director of EMS and Ocean Safety) are going to be meeting with the mayor about moving on to the next stage, seeking public input, and involving the three affected unions, plus (non-union) employees from within the three agencies and the state Department of Health. We're meeting with the mayor next week.

Q: So this is a high priority?

A: Yes. I'm going to give this everything I can. ... At the end of this process, I hope we have a fire (department)-based EMS. I think it's the right thing to do. But if we don't, then at least I know I gave it everything I had.

Q: What unions are involved?

A: The Hawaii Firefighters Association, UPW and HGEA, and a big part of making this work will be making sure that all stakeholders are involved in the process as it moves forward.

Q: What else is going on in the fire department?

A: A big community outreach right now is the smoke alarm installation program for the elderly. We have a data base of elderly folks who don't have the resources to install a smoke alarm. People call us for help, or their families call, or we find out as we respond to emergencies. We've installed 500 and would like to install 500 more by the end of the summer. My goal is to install 5,000 a year. HMSA gave us a grant to get it rolling.