Chief Concerns

Starting Monday, new HFD Chief Kenneth Silva introduces a 100-day action plan that includes forging a closer relationship with the firefighters’ union

Katie Young
Friday - January 13, 2006
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When Chief Kenneth Silva joined HFD in 1981, it was a fire service. Today it’s an ‘all-hazard service’
When Chief Kenneth Silva joined HFD in 1981, it was
a fire service. Today it’s an ‘all-hazard service’

When Kenneth Silva got the call that he was going to be the Honolulu Fire Department’s next fire chief, he called all the necessary people. He called his mother, and he called his wife, who was picking up their daughter from soccer practice. Then Silva went back to warming up leftovers for dinner and helping his son with his math quiz for school.

But later that evening, when all the excitement had settled, Silva made one more very important call. He called the outgoing fire chief of almost eight years, Attilio Leonardi.


“I wanted to talk to him,” says Silva, who at 45 is the youngest fire chief in the history of the department. “The odd thing was you’d think I’d be all ecstatic and happy, but I was more melancholy than anything.”

Leornardi kind of laughed, says Silva, and told him he had felt the same kind of thing when he became chief.

“He told me, ‘On one hand you’re happy, but now that you’ve gotten what you’ve gone after, suddenly there’s this realization that you’re going to be steering the ship and that the responsibility ultimately falls to you.‘All the plans and the vision you have, it’s up to you now to make come true. It’s kind of a daunting task.”

The reason, says Silva, is that HFD is the 16th largest fire department in the United States with an operating budget just under $70 million. “We cover 603 square miles, we have 33,000 alarms a year, 42 fire stations - 44 including aircraft and fireboat - have 1,090 uniformed fire-fighters ... the responsibility started setting in.”

But Silva didn’t have long to stay daunted. Since his appointment was announced in November, Silva has been busy learning how to successfully take the reins from Leonardi when he officially starts as the new fire chief on Monday (Jan. 16).

“I certainly haven’t had time to play basketball or golf,” Silva jokes. “I’m still doing my regular job. And transitioning with Chief Leonardi. There’s a lot of being caught up to speed and a lot of meeting with people.”

There were a few critical elements that had to be in place before he starts, says Silva. He recently named Alvin Tomita as his deputy chief and has been putting together his front-office staff. They’ve also been working hard to fill the vacant chief and battalion chief positions left open by all the transitioning.

“We want to make sure we hit the ground running,” says Silva. “We want to make sure we have our command staff in place so that when we create our vision to move forward, we can do it collectively with everybody.”

Silva and his staff have formalized a 100-day action plan that will start the day he takes over.

“We’re going to do an internal/external audit and a retreat with our executive staff,” he says. “We’re also going to make sure we have a retreat with our union. In any modern fire service, especially in a large department, management and labor need to stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Silva calls this “information gathering” to round out the existing strategic plan, put everyone on the same page, make necessary changes and find a working plan for the future, both immediate and long-term.


“Part of our internal audit is to take a look at what we have in place and what we’re lacking and to make sure we’re prepared and we have the proper equipment and training in place.”

Silva says he already feels comfortable that HFD is able to meet almost all of the threats out there including weapons of mass destruction, chemical and bio-hazardous threats and natural disasters.

“The vision I have for the fire department is twofold,” he says. “To state it simply, I have a responsibility to meet or exceed the expectations of our customers, which are the people in our community, and to provide them with the highest level of service. Secondly, our other customers are our personnel. No fire chief can do it on his own. We only do it through the efforts of everybody.”

Silva says he sees his leadership style as “participative.”

“Working in the fire department as long as I have, you don’t make decisions in a vacuum. There’s time for getting input and time for taking action,” he says.

Silva believes that Leonardi was a chief to be admired. “In my opinion, he’s been the most successful fire chief in my 24 years in the department,” he says. “He has gotten a lot of physical resources for the department and he has dealt with issues that are on a national level and has addressed them locally. He’s also big on both formal education and education in the sense of measuring the department against a template of standards that is nationwide.”

Among the issues Silva will be addressing locally is the impending move from HFD’s temporary headquarters at the airport to its $15 million permanent home on South and Queen streets. The move is planned for mid-February.

Other initiatives Silva and his staff will address include pushing hard for getting sprinkler systems into residential high-rise buildings and a ban on consumer fireworks.

“We know that sprinklers save lives, and that’s something as a fire service we’re not going to back off on,” says Silva, who was also part of a city task force which met to identify incentives that would make sprinkler retrofitting palatable for owners. “But we’re not naive. We are going to look for ways to make it affordable and we want to work with the community on these things.”

Fireworks has long been a drain on resources for HFD, especially during Fourth of July celebrations when the summer heat already makes drier areas prone to brush fires.

“With fireworks, there’s a fine line between it being a cultural issue and a safety issue,” says Silva. “It’s not popular, but I think it’s worth taking a look at. A ban on consumer fireworks would still leave the commercial events available.”

Silva says he’d also like to strengthen the skills of HFD’s firefighters by improving their current training facility by the airport.

“It’s only five acres, and that’s really small for a department of our size. We only have two classrooms and two portables, and we max the place out every day. We just don’t have enough space to meet our needs.”

Silva takes charge during budget season, so one of his first tasks will be managing priorities for HFD and fighting for a budget that meets the department’s needs.

HFD is a very different fire department from when Silva joined as a recruit in 1981.

“I think the biggest change for us is we used to be a fire department, now we’re an all-hazard service,” says Silva, a Kamehameha graduate who has his bach-

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