A helicopter hovers over a smoldering area of brush fire near Honokai Hale.

New law will
slow chopper

The Fire Department seeks an
exemption so it can continue
to refuel in the field

A new federal tax law is forcing Honolulu Fire Department helicopters to refuel at Honolulu Airport, potentially wasting critical time during emergencies.

HFD Chief Attilio Leonardi said he has been told the helicopters may no longer refuel outside the airport, even though the department owns a fuel truck that expedites refuelings during emergencies.

Pumping fuel from the truck to a helicopter would violate an Internal Revenue Service law, prompted by homeland security issues, that taxes fuel at lower rates inside an airport.

When fuel purchased inside an airport is hauled and used outside its boundaries, it becomes subject to a higher tax, Leonardi said.

"We tried to get an exemption as emergency vehicles, but we found out the IRS doesn't give exemptions," Leonardi said. "Our chopper uses about 16,000 gallons of fuel a year, and 8,000 of that is fueled in the field by our tender (fuel truck), so that's 50 percent of our workload.

"We're not really panicking yet, but we would like to clear this up," he said.

Even though the truck is no longer allowed to fill up at the airport, Leonardi said his department was allowed to use the leftover fuel. However, he said he believes the truck's remaining supply ran out during the last round of aerial water drops this week, at the Nanakuli brush fire.

HFD spokesman Capt. Emmit Kane said a full truckload carries 360 gallons of Jet A fuel, enough to support Air One for 14 hours.

"Obviously, it has curbed our air time at the scene," Kane said. "Now, depending on what part of the island we're operating, it could curb on-site time by as much as 50 percent in order for us to return to the airport, refuel and fly back."

Leonardi said HFD has asked Gov. Linda Lingle and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye for help in getting an IRS exemption.

State officials said the tax stems from Homeland Security officials' concerns about fuel trucks containing aviation-grade kerosene traveling outside of pre-approved federal areas.

"Our pre-approved area is the Honolulu International Airport," said Linda Smith, the governor's senior policy advisor. "We plan on contacting the chief of IRS's excise branch in Washington, D.C., to try and get a waiver.

"The concern is that this hinders our ability to fight brush fires on an ongoing basis when you have to go back to the airport to refuel."

A senior aide for Inouye said an earlier request for an exemption had been turned down by the IRS. "We've already gone up the chain, and they've denied the waiver," said Jennifer Sabas. "We're going to have to do a legislative amendment, which we plan to do once we get back from the Labor Day recess."

In the meantime, Sabas said Inouye's office has received a letter from the IRS that will allow HFD to refill its truck one more time. Hopefully, Sabas said, that will be enough to last while changes are made in Washington.

Leonardi said not having the fuel truck for brush fire season is an issue, but he is more concerned about what happens when the helicopter has to pull someone out of the water or off a mountain.

"We might have to leave that person there sitting on a ridge while we go back to the airport to refuel and come back an hour later," he said.

Honolulu Fire Department

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