Big Island police credit nonfleet vehicles for efficient tsunami response
By Chelsea Jensen
West Hawaii Today
Big Island police wouldn't have been able to coordinate such an efficient evacuation during Saturday's tsunami warning had the department switched from private subsidized cars to a limited county-owned fleet of marked vehicles.
"Having fleet vehicles would have crippled our response," said Assistant Chief Henry Tavares, who spoke on behalf of Police Chief Harry Kubojiri, who was in meetings Thursday. "Officers would have had to report to work where they would get an assignment as their (own) vehicles would have no (police) radio. We would then have to find some way to transport officers to their posts and we are talking all the way down in to South Kona, which could take close to another hour to just to get to a command post.
"They would not be able to just respond instantly."
While marked fleet cars serve as a visible deterrent in the community, an entirely county-owned fleet likely wouldn't have provided officers enough vehicles for a wide-spread response during an impending natural disaster, he said.
About 90 personnel were activated in the department's Kona District Saturday morning in response to a magnitude-8.8 earthquake off Chile that triggered a tsunami forecast to hit the Big Island coastline around 11 a.m., Tavares said.
Police had not tallied the number of officers activated islandwide as of press time, but Technical Services Division Maj. Larry Weber noted every officer not on vacation had responded.
Tavares said had the department gone to county-owned fleet vehicles, a maximum of 20 police cars would have been available to officers at the Kona Police Station during the evacuation.
Police and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union have long opposed switching subsidized personal cars outfitted with blue dome lights to an entirely county-owned marked fleet.
There are currently 17 cruisers and 18 sports utility vehicles in the county-owned fleet and the department is working to install lap tops in those 35 vehicles, Weber said.
The first 18 fleet vehicles hit Big Island roads in May 2008, 15 years after West Hawaii Crime Stoppers Inc. issued a 30-page report advocating the switch and three years after the county's Police Fleet Implementation Working Group's study found the switch could save the county money.
The first order of fleet cars cost $56,000 apiece, and the second round of vehicles averaged $65,000 each in 2009 — nearly $20,000 more than the group's December 2005 study had projected.
The department's current tsunami evacuation plan, developed in 2005, calls for all officers to respond at the sound of emergency sirens and evacuate inundation zones within four hours, Maj. Paul Kealoha said. With a county-owned fleet, police response times to critical urban and rural intersections to direct traffic and assist residents from inundation zones would likely increase.
"The ability to respond from our residence allows us to respond quickly — wherever we are. And, the fact that we have police radio within all vehicles, officers can get updates and assignments without going to a command post," Kealoha said. "Having fleet vehicles certainly would have been a bigger problem for us."
The only way police could have undertaken a tsunami evacuation similar to Saturday's with marked fleet cars, Kealoha said would be to have each officer drive a marked fleet car that is kept at their homes while off duty — much the same as officers already do with their subsidized personal cars.
"In the instance of a natural disaster, subsidized vehicles certainly helped," he said. "What we have in our evacuation plan is based on the fact that we have subsidized vehicles that all officers retain at their residence. Had we gone to a totally marked fleet our plans would have had to be modified greatly."