Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, West Hawaii Today is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volunteer firefighters on Hawaii Island are some of our most unsung heroes, with a history that dates back 132 years.
Organized fire protection in Hawaii County began in 1888 with the formation of volunteer companies using horse-drawn apparatus, according to trade magazine Firehouse. The first station was on Kekaulike Street in Hilo with Jack Wilson as the first volunteer fire chief. By 1910, the Hilo Volunteer Fire Department had 60 members and responded to 11 fire calls that year.
Today, there are eight volunteer companies in West Hawaii that compliment the operations of the Hawaii Fire Department in Ocean View, Kona Paradise, Kalaoa, Puuanahulu, Waikii Ranch, Waimea, North Kohala and Paauilo with about 120 active volunteers serving the community. The Big Island is the only county in the state with a volunteer department.
“The spirit of being a volunteer, it’s amazing,” said Capt. Jordan Lee, who is the Hawaii Fire Department’s training officer for West Hawaii. “These men and women come out, a lot of them work full time, yet they give their time, not only on a monthly basis for training, but they respond, in some cases a lot quicker than career firefighters.”
The volunteer companies mostly respond to brush fires, but have the training and occasionally respond to structure fires as well as search and rescue missions.
Capt. John Bertsch has been a volunteer since 1997, leading the Kalaoa 7 Bravo Volunteer Company. The company, independent of the fire department, started with only an engine and brush truck.
“A group of individuals decided we needed to have a volunteer fire company close to town, so 7 Bravo was formed. It was originally run out of a tent off Palani (Road) in what was Matsumoto Construction yard,” said Bertsch.
In the early 2000s, the Palisades Homeowners Association contacted Bertsch with a request to move 7 Bravo to the bottom of Kaiminani Drive in an effort to help reduce homeowner’s insurance costs due to the subdivision being more than 5 miles from the Kailua-Kona Fire Station.
“We have a two-bay firehouse. That has been our hub,” said Bertsch of the company’s station at the intersection of Kaiminani Drive and Ane Keohokalole Highway that was built by volunteers using donated materials. “We were the primary fire service for Palisades up to Puuanahulu.”
Nearly two decades later, Kalaoa 7 Bravo Volunteer Company boasts 12 to 15 active members ranging in age from the late teens to mid-60s, a four-wheel-drive brush truck, a Class 1 structural fire engine and a 1,500 gallon water tanker. The volunteers respond to fires as far north as Upolu Point in North Kohala and as far south as South Point in Ka‘u.
“The volunteers are selfless,” said Lee. “There’s an understanding that it takes many hands to keep the boat steered in the right direction.”
He said people become volunteer firefighters for different reasons. Some are simply looking for a way to give back to the community while others are young and looking to experience firefighting before deciding if that’s the career path they want to pursue.
“We have people who have time and want to give back. A real cross-section, including retired firefighters,” said Lee.
The Hawaii Fire Department is a true “combination fire department” that has volunteer and paid components mandated by County Charter. By law, both are considered career firefighters. Bertsch said the only difference is one gets a check, the other doesn’t.
“If there is an incident in the county that needs additional resources, we are able to deploy rapidly and effectively with highly trained volunteer firefighters that have many years of experience under their belts,” he said.
Bertsch is very proud of his volunteers.
“We have a great team,” he said. “Most of the people who volunteer do it because they love it and want to give back to the community. They enjoy the education, the training and the camaraderie. A lot of them have full time jobs or are self employed with an arrangement with their employer that says if I need to go for an extended period of time I just ask and they will typically grant them permission.”
Individuals who are interested can contact the Hawaii Fire Department at 932-2900 or visit a nearby volunteer station.
“They are amazing. They are true Hometown Heroes,” said Lee.
Know a Hometown Hero who should be highlighted next Wednesday? It can be anybody, from a youngster doing good for the community, to a professional helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or even a kupuna! Please send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: Hometown Heroes Nomination. Please include the hero’s name, contact information and what makes them a hero.