For Kimo Puailihau, giving back to Molokai means helping his home island better prepare for a potential hazardous materials emergency.
Puailihau — a 2001 Molokai High School graduate — has returned annually to Molokai for the past five years as a training coordinator with the 93rd Civil Support Team of the Hawaii National Guard. Each year, his team helps Molokai’s first responders get ready for the worst-case “what if” scenarios involving hazardous materials.
Whether the threat is chemical, biological or radiological, Puailihau and his team are ready to respond. If a weapon of mass destruction were ever deployed in Hawaii, it is Puailihau’s team that you want on your side.
When a strange chemical or other unknown material is found, first responders on Molokai will call the Hazmat 10 Team on Maui. They are trained to respond to the common, everyday hazmat situations. But when the stakes are higher, it is the 93rd CST who get the call.
“When it escalates to a level above their head, we are the next response team to call,” said Puailihau.
Puailihau said that the Molokai firefighters are pretty well prepared in defensive operations if a high level hazmat situation occurs. His training takes first responders to the next level to be more “proactive” in handling emergencies, said Puailihau. This can involve establishing isolation zones and how to collect samples of materials for identification.
This type of preparation allows resident to feel more secure, said Puailihau. “Just because you hear about hazardous materials or radiation doesn’t mean you need to be afraid,” he said. “I just want to let the people at home to know that what we are doing is stuff that will benefit Molokai.”
When Puailihau joined the 93rd CST in 2007, the Army staff sergeant said these types of hazmat training sessions were limited to the main Hawaiian Islands. At his urging, the team now conducts training exercises on Molokai and Lanai annually. “My whole thing is to bring something back home,” he said.
This year’s training scenario involves the hypothetical release of anthrax into an air conditioning system. Yesterday, the training took place at the Young Brothers’ shipping site at the Kaunakakai Wharf. In the unlikely event that an attack were to occur on Molokai, the Kaunakakai Harbor and the Molokai Airport are considered the “highest value targets,” said Puailihau. Anthrax is a realistic threat that has popped up recently, said Puailihau, since the chemical is deadly and can be sent by mail in a small package.
When first responders arrived at the training scene, they found a man passed out on the ground. Puailihau trained the firefighters what to look for before reacting and treating it as a medical response. “You don’t want to enter a danger zone without the proper precautions,” he said.
Puailihau trained the first responders to examine the surrounding environment for warning signs. Are there any unusual smells? Does the plant or animal life appear different than normal? Is anything else out of the ordinary? “They need to learn to size up the situation,” said Puailihau.
While the Hazmat 10 Team on Maui receives the same training, Puailihau believes this is useful for first responders on Molokai as well. After all, it is the Molokai firefighters who are most familiar with the island and will best know if something is out of place, he said.
Molokai does have a hazmat technician on duty at all times at the fire station. But to be better prepared, Puailihau said the island needs more equipment, including a better decontamination setup and detectors for threats. Puailihau would like to see more of this equipment come from Maui but realizes that these decisions come down to money which is not always available. He also said Molokai could use more certified hazmat technicians.
Each year, Puailihau begins with a refresher on what was learned in past years. He also raises their awareness of the newest and most common threats. In past years, the training scenarios have focused on how to approach a methamphetamine lab and a different type of chemical lab setup.
“They love it,” said Puailihau about the training the firefighters receive. “The fire department is now not just being reactive but can be proactive to threats.”