Union boss calls on state to consider replacing decommissioned fire boat

Ten years after Hawaii’s only fire boat was decommissioned, the state says it has no plans replace the vessel.
Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 6:04 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 6, 2023 at 7:40 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ten years after Hawaii’s only fire boat was decommissioned, the state says it has no plans replace the vessel.

Now, the head of the firefighter’s union is calling on government to reconsider.

The president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association says one of the major benefits of having a fire boat for emergencies along the coast is the unlimited access to water.

As flames began to ravage homes in Lahaina Aug. 8, the town’s water system collapsed.

Dry hydrants left firefighters unequipped, making it impossible to knock back the blaze.

With no water, the wildfire quickly exploded into an inferno fueled by winds that topped out at nearly 70 mph.

That wall of flames ultimately roared down the hillside towards Front Street killing an untold number of people and erasing an entire town.

“Once the water source goes down like what we saw in Maui when the hydrants weren’t working, then there’s really not much our fire crews can do,” said Bobby Lee. “It’s hard to say if a fire boat in that situation would have helped. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt. That’s for sure.”

Fire boats have played a critical role during some of the nation’s deadliest disasters.

On 9/11, the John J. Harvey used the Hudson River to supply firefighters with their only source of water after the Twin Towers fell, destroying nearby water mains.

Despite being one of the larger port cities in the United States, Honolulu doesn’t have its own fire boat.

In fact, none of the islands have one.

Now, Lee wants government to consider replacing the Moku Ahi.

The 110-foot vessel was decommissioned nearly a decade ago after a costly leak in its aging hull raised questions about its seaworthiness. Back then, there was talk of swapping out the large boat for something smaller and faster.

In 2014, HNN reporter Keoki Kerr asked the state when the boat would be replaced.

Kerr said, “The state says it could be a year or more before it acquires and fully staffs a new vessel so firefighting capabilities can be fully restored to Honolulu Harbor.”

But the idea never became reality.

Instead, the state Department of Transportation said in a statement it, along with the Coast Guard, work with each county fire department to ensure facilities are prepared for fire. That includes the requirement of fire suppression equipment and fire response plans to be in place.

HDOT says it’s also replaced most wooden piers with concrete to withstand fire. Adding landside facilities are also equipped with fire lines and hydrants.

A DOT spokesperson also said six of the state’s nine commercial harbors have home port vessels equipped to fight landside and water fires. HNN Investigates asked who owns them and what it would take to call those boats into service. So far, HNN Investigates has not gotten a response.

Meanwhile, the union boss says having a fire boat staffed by county firefighters on standby is an important part of being prepared.

“I think there’s always a need,” Lee said.

In addition to being able to respond to boat fires and assist in ocean rescues, Lee says the vessel could also be used in place of a fire hydrant for some emergencies along the coast.

“The fire boat that we had in the past could draft thousands of gallons of water per minute,” he said. “The reach could be 100 yards or more, easily.”

HNN Investigates also reached out to the Honolulu Fire Department for comment. A spokesperson wouldn’t say whether or not a fire boat would be useful deferring comment to the state.