As HFD promotes first woman chief, it still lags behind - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

As HFD promotes first woman chief, it still lags behind

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

As the Honolulu Fire Department celebrated promoting its first woman battalion chief Friday, HFD Chief Manuel Neves admitted the department lags behind other similarly sized departments in the hiring of women.

Debbi Eleneki, 47, became the department's first female battalion chief during a promotion ceremony Friday at Mission Memorial Auditorium next to Honolulu Hale.

Eleneki will oversee dozens of firefighters spread throughout numerous stations and be in charge of large-scale incidents.

Neves said it's been one of his goals for the department to catch up to other departments with more women firefighters, since Honolulu has just 16 women out of 1,100 in HFD.

“And we are not trying to just get women so we can check off a box and say we got more women. We are actually looking for women that will fit into the culture of our fire department and can add to our diverse force and make us stronger,” Neves said.

"It's a wonderful job for anyone," said Eleneki, who sat down to speak to Hawaii News Now Thursday at Central Fire Station.

She is responsible for a series of firsts at HFD. She was also its first female fire captain and first woman firefighter, joining the fire department 28 years ago.

"Before I felt like I was treated like their sister. Now that happens too, but I've come to an age where I'm kind of like a mother figure, a wife figure. And that's another tool, it's another tool that I use, and I think it's been beneficial," Eleneki said.

She comes from a firefighting family. Her father had retired as a captain and three brothers were in the department when she started decades back at age 20, making headlines before she was married and she was known as her maiden name, Debbi Akiona.

“People may have been more accepting to at least give me the opportunity to prove myself,” she said, recalling joining the department in 1987. “I was young and free spirited a little bit naive the pressure never really came over me I guess I didn't realize the magnitude at the time. I was always a tomboy -- that was my comfort zone.”

Eleneki said her hardest emergency call was in 1999, when a massive rockslide at Sacred Falls State Park killed eight people and injured 50 others.

It happened on Mother's Day just a few months after the birth of her first child.

Families were all together when the tragedy struck.

"So the survivors that were there saw the aftermath just like what we saw, except that was their father, that was their mother, that was their brother, sister or friend," Eleneki said.

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