The Education Of A Firefighter

Don Chapman
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July 30, 2008
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Kai Chapman
Kai Chapman is at top center. In the foreground, Micah Ancheta, ex-Gov. Cayetano’s grandson

Little did I know when my son Kai began training as a Honolulu Fire Department recruit in March that I would be receiving an education myself. But by the time he graduated on July 18 with 20 others in HFD’s 93rd recruit class, having lived vicariously through his four and a half months of training, I had a greater understanding and even more respect for our firefighters and what they bravely yet routinely do.

Which seems to be just about everything and anything.

Once he began training, seemingly every day on the news I noticed firefighters rescuing people from flaming buildings, sink holes, crane collapses, car accidents, home medical emergencies, chemical spills, natural disasters, and boating, swimming and hiking incidents. One of the senior officers who spoke at the graduation ceremony said that he’d participated in some of Class 93’s training because firefighters today are expected to learn and do so much more than they were just a few years ago - including experiencing a “flashover,” when heat from a fire builds up to 1,200 to 1,500 degrees and in an instant combusts everything in the room.

Yes, I’m writing as Kai’s very proud Pops, but also as a huge admirer of the men and women in those yellow trucks and fire-retardant uniforms. These people are truly elite, in the very best sense of the term. To put it in perspective: 5,000 people requested applications for the last HFD test, 4,000 people submitted applications, just 600 passed the test. From there, a grueling physical test and personal interviews narrowed the field, and Kai and his classmates were among the top 88 chosen. Happily, his brother Daniel Andrade begins training next month in HFD recruit Class 94, following their older brother James Andrade, a seven-year veteran, into the department. Class No. 94 will be the final group of 22 chosen from that last testing phase.

But that’s just the start of testing.

Kai and his classmates - who include the grandsons of former Gov. Ben Cayetano and legendary coach Al Minn - were tested on an almost daily basis, both academics and physical skills.

And they were allowed to fail just three tests, with one more opportunity, on the spot, to retake and pass the test. Fail that - or your fourth test overall - and you’re gone. So the pressure was on every day. As I commented after the graduation ceremony to lead training officer Captain Guy Katayama, Kai studied harder at the HFD academy than he did at Kamehameha or HPU. “They have to,” he replied. “It’s pretty intense.”

Kai’s training began with him and his classmates learning how to quickly put on their “turnouts” - protective boots, pants, jacket, gloves, helmet/mask and air supply - not as simple as it sounds to protect every inch of skin and seal out smoke, ash and water.

From there it was everything from learning how to use the various ladders, implements and hoses, using the “Jaws of Life” to cut open a car and doing traffic control, learning to tie all kinds of rope knots, passing national EMT certification (he did a stint doing “vitals” in the St. Francis West ER), two weeks of hazardous materials training, and lots of physical conditioning. Hearing about his first house fire and being “on the nozzle” brought home the reality - especially for me - of the career he was embracing. So too did his being on the nozzle for a training fire at the Chevron refinery, where he found himself almost knee-deep in a mixture of oil and water that began to burn. Unable to move the spray of water off the much bigger fire, they were trained to simply kick the floating flames to the side. He honestly seemed to enjoy that day as much as jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean at Sandy Beach, practicing ocean rescues.

Then there was learning triage for mass casualties - doing quick tests to decide who needs immediate medical care, whose injuries can wait and who is too badly injured to be saved. One of the firefighters who was first on the scene at the awful Sacred Falls rock fall spoke to the class about the emotional difficulty of identifying a woman who’d suffered massive internal injuries and for whom nothing could be done to save her. It hit me then that in his job Kai would be seeing things that I’d never wanted him to see as a little boy. “I know, Dad,” he said, “but people need us.”

Indeed, they - we - do. As Kai’s training progressed, I was increasingly impressed with the thorough preparation he and his classmates were receiving - first in the classroom, then outside to do it physically - as well as the discipline and camaraderie. When I think of the dangers he could face on any given day, that training makes me feel better.

Yes, as Kai goes to work at Engine Company 33 in Palolo Valley, I am indeed a very proud father. But each of us on Oahu can be proud of, and daily thankful for, all the men and women of the Honolulu Fire Department.

To each of you fire folks, thanks, God bless and stay safe.


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