Playing with fire


HILO — Today is the final day of National Fire Prevention Week.

For the firefighters and recruits of the Hawaii Fire Department, every week — and every day — is focused on safety. That’s what veteran firefighters were emphasizing on Friday at the Central Fire Station in Hilo, as they put second-week recruits through their paces in mock traffic collision and earthquake scenarios.

According to Fire Capt. Darwin Okinaka, the controlled chaos that occurred in the station’s parking lot is part of first responder training for the classes of 18 firefighter recruits and three fire dispatcher recruits.

“It’s a basic medical training that the recruits get. All of our personnel are trained to at least the first responder level,” he said. “We also have EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and paramedics. They get this early on in their careers in their training. Because they’re already in their uniforms, people might identify them with the Fire Department, and we want them to be trained to at least give the same baseline of care as any other firefighter.”

The recruits performed their roles under the watchful eyes of Okinaka, Batallion Chief Lance Uchida, Capt. Chris Honda and recruit trainers Mark Spain and James Wilson. Some portrayed badly injured collision victims while others were tasked with being the first responders on scene. A few nascent firefighters were decked out in yellow structural firefighting suits — oppressively hot in the unrelenting midday sun, but which provide a measure of protection to firefighters when they come into close contact with fire, which is even hotter.

“The interior of the suit has a water moisture barrier and the exterior is made of Kevlar. It’s a triple-layer suit,” Okinaka said.

Firefighters entered the simulated life-or-death battles armed with blood pressure cuffs, spine boards, orthopedic neck braces and automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs.

“We want to see our recruits do a triage of our victims, sizing up the scene, looking for any hazards, and prioritizing the patients — who’s the most critical — and doing initial care and appropriately assigning them to be extricated out to the hospitals,” Okinaka said. “We’re looking at teamwork, team building and at their patient assessment skills, as well.”

While some of the recruits went about the business of attempting to assess the condition of the injured and prioritize the order of treatment, others acted as victims, patients and bystanders. One recruit lying on a spine board with a neck brace complained of internal injuries and repeatedly exclaimed: “Why are you calling me Charlie? My name’s not Charlie!” Charlie, by the way, is first responder code for a critically injured patient. Another was frantically looking for his “wife” and trying to convince recruits tending to patients to drop what they were doing and help in the search. He found her in the rear of a van that had T-boned a handi-van and screamed for help to extricate her from the wreckage.

“It’s kinda like this on these crazy calls,” Honda said. “It’s similar to real-life situations. Sometimes, bystanders can make it chaotic and difficult to control.”

During a debriefing, Uchida told the recruits the simulations are essential to help them stay collected and make good decisions when they respond to scenes such as the fatal van and station wagon collision that occurred Thursday afternoon on Volcano Highway by Hirano Store in Glenwood.

“We had one DOA; another person was critical,” he said. “One vehicle was up on the stone wall, running. The wheels were turning. … You always want to secure the vehicle. Capt. Okinaka was there and he pulled the distributor cap. That’s how we shut the vehicle off.”