While many of us spend the holidays with family and friends, for Hawaii Island’s first responders, it’s just another few days on the job.
Whether responding to the good or to the bad, Big Island police, and fire and rescue personnel never let their guards down — though it means time away from those they love — to ensure the safety and well-being of the community.
“The bottom line is: We’re here for the public, and we have a duty to respond, especially during the holidays,” said Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki, who’s been with the department 23 years and now oversees special operations, the hazardous materials teams and rescue personnel. “Every day is the same as far as the job at hand and what we do, but when you’re working on the holidays, it can be a little harder because you miss the time at home with your family.”
Hawaii Police Department Kona Patrol Capt. Richard Sherlock also said being away from loved ones is the hardest part of working holidays like Christmas and New Year’s. The nearly 23-year veteran has worked his share of holidays, particularly during his early years.
“When you first start on patrol, you’re going to work both of the holidays and that’s the hard part because you may not be there for Christmas morning or dinner,” he said. “It’s even harder when you’re working out of the district where you live because of so much driving time.”
However, that does not mean the holiday spirit is not alive, he said. At the stations, police officers share goodies, cheer, and help one another to ensure no one stays longer than they have to on a holiday, he said. Officers relieving shifts also keep briefings short, so those nearing the end of their shift can get home.
“When you work as police in a department, your brother and sister officers are basically your family,” Sherlock said. “We may not be home, but the feeling of aloha within the group you are working with is there.”
This Christmas, Sherlock said, Kona was quiet.
“It was very good. Some years are quiet, and it’s great when they are quiet,” he said. “The good stories are when nothing happens.”
But, that’s not always the case. Christmas, like any other day of the year, has its share of crimes and incidents, Sherlock said.
For Sherlock, who started as a patrol officer in Puna, the holiday season of 1991 brings back the worst memories.
That’s when 23-year-old Dana Ireland, a Virginia woman who had recently graduated from college, was intentionally run over by a car containing three men while she was riding her bicycle on Christmas Eve 1991 from Opihikao to her family’s rented vacation home in Kapoho, according to Stephens Media archives. She was then taken to a fishing trail in Waa Waa, where she was battered, sexually assaulted and left for dead.
The attackers, Frank Pauline Jr. and Albert Ian Schweitzer were handed life prison sentences. Shawn Schweitzer, who received a plea deal, received five years probation.
“There were a bunch of things. We were smashed. It was a really hard Christmas that year,” said Sherlock, who did not respond to the Ireland murder but was sent to a variety of other incidents in Puna that holiday season. “Even though it’s a special time personally for family and yourself, police officers usually get called when things are bad, whereas everyone else is having their cheery time with family.”
Another veteran officer, Maj. Sam Thomas, who is nearing 31 years with the department, also said the Ireland murder is something that has stuck with him for two decades. Thomas too has worked his share of Christmas days during his tenure, he said.
“It’s ordinarily a less busy day because more people are home with their family,” said Thomas, who said 127 officers, who receive time-and-a-half pay, were on duty Christmas Day. “Good memories are not having to respond to bad cases.”
For Hawaii Fire Department firefighters, rescue personnel and emergency medical technicians, responding to a suicide during the holidays has to be the toughest experience, said Kosaki.
“People get depressed during the holidays,” he said. “And, it’s not always a good thing to respond to during this time of the year.”
Kosaki said delivering a baby in an ambulance during the holiday “is the best memory I have.”