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Federal firefighters at Hawaii Island training area battle Army over safety, retaliation complaints

The union claims two veteran firefighters are being retaliated against by being overlooked for promotions for complaining about the problems.
Published: May. 11, 2022 at 5:20 PM HST|Updated: May. 11, 2022 at 7:11 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Federal firefighters at Hawaii Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area cover rough terrain and difficult fire conditions in an area bigger than the size of Oahu.

“Due to the winds and the weird climate up there, things can change really quickly. It’s very dangerous,” said union President Kaanapu Jacobsen.

Besides fires, they’re also fighting their boss ― the U.S. Army ― which wants to conduct a prescribed burn at Pohakuloa.

Jacobsen fears it could quickly get out of control.

“We have minimal trucks available, we’re very undermanned so we need to get those things fixed before we go into thinking about controlled burning,” said Jacobsen.

He also complains about lack of manpower.

“We are fighting it with just 19 men,” said Kaaanapu. “An average day is about six so we are not even meeting the NFP (National Fire Protection) requirements to respond to a fire.”

He says shoddy vehicles and equipment have been ignored for years.

“Right now we have nine vehicles, three work, one is a structure truck that shouldn’t even be on those roads, two are barely running,” said Kaapanu.

Michael O. Donnelly, chief of external communications at U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, said the Army doesn’t plan to conduct controlled burns at the Pohakuloa Training Area this year.

“However, given the proven safety and environmental benefits of prescribed burning, U.S. Army Hawaii is in the process of developing this capability,” he said.

The statement didn’t respond to questions about manpower or equipment.

The union claims two veteran firefighters are being retaliated against by being overlooked for promotions for complaining about the problems.

“Because of those two individuals coming forward complaining about safety, complaining about the leadership, they can never say they they did it on purpose but we see it,” said Kaanapu.

“The writing is on the wall.”

The Army says it encourages all soldiers and employees to report known or suspected acts of retaliation. “Any allegation of retaliation will be taken seriously,” said the Army’s statement.

The firefighters speaking publicly comes at a critical time as the Army is seeking comments about its environmental impact statement. Next week, the U.S. Army’s Installation and Management Command will be visiting Pohakuloa to ‘look for areas of improvement.’

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