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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Fire chief's priorities: disasters, terrorism, flu

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ken Silva has half a year under his belt as Honolulu's fire chief. In an Advertiser interview at the new Fire Department headquarters in Kaka'ako, Silva talked story about the direction his agency is going.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Age: 45.

Education: 1978 graduate of The Kamehameha Schools; undergraduate degree from the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu.

Personal: Married 18 years, to Terri Lynn.

Children: Daughter, Taylor Rae, 12; and son, Riggs, 10.

Hobbies: Golf, volleyball, going to the beach with his family, basketball and supporting University of Hawai'i football.

Faith: Christian since 1999, attends New Hope Christian Fellowship.

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The Fire Department's new headquarters building is open for business on Queen and South streets. The $15 million project included renovating the historic Kaka'ako Fire Station next door.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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In his first six months as the city's fire chief, Kenneth G. Silva has tackled issues ranging from the resolution of a labor dispute to the Fire Department's continuing effort to ban all commercial fireworks.

He has put together his management staff, prioritized the department's objectives and geared up for the possibility of a flu pandemic, all while working toward national accreditation for his department. His staff continues to work to renovate and fix aging fire facilities while trying to advocate for legislation.

Last week, he sat down with The Advertiser to discuss the work he has done and what he hopes to accomplish.

Q. How have the first six months treated you and your staff?

A. Has it been six months? It's gone by in a heartbeat. We had a 100-day plan to get us started and we've completed that; we've promoted officers and held an executive retreat with the six command staff. We went to the chief officers, the battalion chiefs and got their feedback, we went to the union and asked them what was important to them. We got feedback from our Fire Commission and from the mayor's staff and the city administration. And we took all of that information and with that we developed our master strategic plan. What we've seen in the past, or what I've seen in my 25 years in the business, is that the Fire Department is fluid. We're getting pushed and pulled by big events, whether they are hurricanes, 9/11-type events, 42 days of rain earlier this year or what have you. Without a plan that we can reorient back to, we are not going to be able to accomplish the things that are important to us.

Q. What are some of your highest priorities?

A. We need to make sure our response plans, specific to three different areas, natural disasters, things like hurricanes, tsunamis, we're prepared for. Then also man-made disasters, which would be weapons of mass destruction-type events, we're prepared for. Then, of course, you see it all over the news whether it be here or around the world, being ready as an agency and being prepared for pandemics such as avian flu, influenza-type viruses. Everybody, the predictors worldwide, say it isn't a matter of if it is coming but when it is coming. So how do we respond as an agency? How are we prepared as a community for these types of events?

Q. Taking into consideration budgetary constraints, what do you want to see addressed immediately and what do you think the people of the City and County of Honolulu need?

A. The difficulty we have as an agency is that we don't have a dedicated position to do legislative work. What I've seen is that it is all about relationships and being there all the time so they know your face and then you have access to the legislators. We don't have the ability to do that and so we haven't been all that successful.

Some of the things that we've looked at in the past that we haven't gotten passed are fireworks (bans). As the fire service, just speaking on what our responsibilities are, we've always been advocates of a ban on fireworks for consumer fireworks (everything from sparklers to firecrackers). I know there has been a push back from different segments of our society and I totally understand that, but as the fire service, that is part of our responsibility. What we say is leave the fireworks to the professionals. I'm not saying don't have them we can have the professional displays and we can just go and enjoy them. There are a lot of great venues where we can go and watch those things. We won't move off that dime, and I think it is part of our responsibility as a fire service.

Another thing that we've been looking at since 2000 is to get as many buildings as we can outfitted with sprinklers, and we are targeting high-rise residential buildings. We have a fair amount of buildings, about 300, that were built prior to the change of the fire code that are not sprinklered. We did form a task force last year that produced a report and recommendations. The task force was broad-based and included all parties who had an interest, including the building owners' associations. We've done educational things, but if we don't get some kind of (tax) credit or something to lessen the burden of the cost, it is not going to happen. It is not a politically popular thing, but I always say this: Fire codes, and it is too bad, but fire codes change in response to incidents. When we had the MGM Grand and the Hilton hotel fire in Las Vegas, that's what got the push going for hotels to be retrofitted, but those were multiple-death incidents, and I would hate for that to happen in our jurisdiction. The reality is that sometimes that is what it takes.

Q. Do you have any Fourth of July advice for the community?

A. Just remember last year what happened; it was a crazy time for us. We had a tremendous amount of brushfires and we pushed for a ban, especially for the Fourth of July because it occurs in the middle of summer when everything is dried out and kids are out of school. Last year we had 100 brushfires alone on July 4 and 40 the day after. We have a finite amount of resources that are available for all emergencies, and if we have a third of our resources committed to brushfires, that is that much less resources than we have to assist in a timely manner with anything else. There is always a cost to brushfires.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.