Hawaii should join
state emergency aid system


Hawaii is the only state not part of a nationwide system of states sharing assistance.

HURRICANE Katrina prompted California to belatedly join a 9-year-old pact that helps the sharing of emergency assistance after disasters, leaving Hawaii alone on the outside of the network of states. The next Legislature should make the leap into the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, despite the limited role likely because of the distance from the mainland.

Gov. Lingle has asked the attorney general to draft a bill that could lead to Hawaii's participation in the system. That will be an easy task, since a model bill is on EMAC's Web site, with instructions that its language not be changed for any state.

Approved by Congress in 1996, the organization is aimed at cutting red tape in states' sharing of resources, including equipment and personnel, in responding to disasters. Katrina resulted in the widest mutual aid ever, with more than 31,000 people being sent by dozens of states to Louisiana and Mississippi. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands also belong to EMAC.

California's legislature approved a bill joining the compact last week, although the 30,000-member firefighters union complained that it could subject rescue workers to lawsuits. The objection is unfounded; the model bill provides that employees of any state rendering aid in another state are legally considered agents of the receiving state in areas such as tort liability, except for willful misconduct, gross negligence or recklessness.

California and Hawaii have helped other states cope with disasters, including Katrina, without being EMAC members. California sent 1,500 emergency workers, police and National Guard troops to the Gulf Coast, and Hawaii dispatched a state Civil Defense worker to Houston and seven state mental health workers to New Orleans.

Hawaii Deputy Attorney General Michael Vincent expresses concern that formal agreement to provide and receive assistance might not be economical. He points out that only states under federal disaster status are eligible for reimbursement of expenses, including travel costs.

However, any Hawaii emergency that would require outside help is likely to be a hurricane or tsunami, which the president is virtually certain to declare a national disaster. Active-duty military troops on Oahu would be available in response. Likewise, mainland states experiencing calamities of nature are likely to regard Hawaii as a last resort for providing a large amount of resources.

Membership would allow Hawaii to more directly participate in a nationwide effort to assist disaster victims. While some complaints were made that the Federal Emergency Management Agency ignored protocol in requesting firefighter assistance, sending the request directly to fire departments, new FEMA leadership should result in better coordination in utilizing the compact. Hawaii would be more secure and able to help others within the system of states than on the outside.

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