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Garrett Nicholas Cole
Each day we are reminded of the real and ever-present threats in the world-both natural and man-made. Fortunately, there are those who swear an oath to protect and defend us from such opposing threats. When a siren is heard, most automatically think to casually move aside and let the first responders pass. But it’s important to remember that these defenders are en route to uphold their civic duties of protecting and rescuing civilians.
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Like all first responders, firefighters daily put their lives on the line needing to be ready at a moment’s notice. Expecting the unexpected and preparing for the unimaginable is their norm. Here in Hawai`i, firefighters have played a vital role culturally, physically, and historically.
The origin of firefighters in Hawai`i dates back to December 27, 1850, as King Kamehameha III signed an ordinance that established the Honolulu Fire Department. This was the first time in Hawaiian and United States history that a fire department was established during a ruling monarchy.
Alexande Cartwright Chief of
During this time, W.C. Parke was appointed as the first fire chief and remained in that position until he was replaced by Alexander Cartwright in 1853.
In its infancy, the firefighting equipment was rudimentary and consisted of buckets and portable water supplies. As Cartwright developed the department, it incorporated hand-drawn engines and a hook and ladder company.
As years passed, the Central Fire Station in Honolulu became the largest landmark which allowed a watchman to sit and report if there was a fire in the city.
For many years the firefighters had all been a volunteer force until two fires, in 1886 and 1900, destroyed most of Chinatown. The fires began after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the area and the city government responded by burning the waste. The contained fire then grew out of control and burned 38 acres.
With over $1 million in damage, the legislature funded salaries for the city’s firefighters as well as horses to pull the steam engines and carriages.
More innovations were introduced in the early 1900s which included motorized vehicles, a switchboard, and radio communications. All of these innovations formed the Fire Alarm Bureau in 1933.
Then on December 7, 1941, came a day that changed the world, especially Hawai`i. Engine Companies 1, 4, and 6 raced to Hickam Field to fight the fires caused by the Japanese bombers. Among the many casualties were Captain John Carreira, Captain Thomas S. Macy, and Hoseman Harry T.L. Pang. While battling the flames, Lieutenant Frederick Kealoha and Hosemen George Correa, John A. Gilman, Moses Kalilikane, Patrick J. McCabe, and Solomon H. Naauao Jr. were wounded. These six men later received awards for their bravery and were the only civilian firefighters to receive purple hearts in the United States’ history. In 1984, Captains Carreira and Macy, and Hoseman Pang were awarded their Purple Hearts posthumously during a ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Habor.
Hawai`i continued to progress as a strategic location in the Pacific, even after the war concluded. Eventually, Hawaii gained statehood in 1959. At the time, the Honolulu Fire Department was under the leadership of William K. Blaisdell, father of the future mayor of Honolulu, Neal Blaisdell.
In later years, the advancements and reforms in lifesaving and rescue equipment improved the ability of firefighters to succeed in their responsibilities. Some of these innovations were the NOTAR helicopter, which aids in mountain and ocean rescues, and the Moku Ahi , which is the department’s fireboat.
Every day these firefighters willingly respond and face dire situations head-on with unwavering resolve. The Honolulu Fire Department has a longstanding and powerful legacy that acts as a foundational inspiration for those in uniform today. Having begun as a group of volunteers passing buckets of water to the present-day NOTAR rescuing trapped hikers, the sacrifice and dedication of the Honolulu firefighters remain steadfast. Through promoting preparedness as the best prevention and enacting effective emergency response, the HFD continues to provide a safer community for O`ahu.
Originally published at https://garrettnicholascole.com on October 7, 2021.