By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Thursday morning’s fire in Keaukaha helped to highlight a question that emergency responders are having trouble answering fully: Who exactly has a copy of the key to open the gates for the emergency evacuation route through Hilo International Airport?
One of the lowest lying areas in East Hawaii, the neighborhoods are some of the most susceptible to events like flooding and tsunamis. Meanwhile, the area is regularly accessible only via Kalanianaole Avenue, and therefore difficult, or even impossible, to enter and exit in the event that the road is closed. An emergency route across Hilo International Airport provides the only alternative.
As the overseer of Hawaii’s emergency response and preparedness systems, Civil Defense ultimately has the authority and responsibility, said Director Darryl Oliveira, to make sure residents can get through the yellow metal gates that lead from Nene Street onto the Hawaiian Homelands and airport property that lies to the south of the residential section of Keaukaha.
On Thursday afternoon, Oliveira explained that Civil Defense and Hawaii County Fire Department both have copies of the key. Additionally, 10 individual members of two different community associations in the area were given keys years ago to provide on-site access in the event that fire or Civil Defense representatives are delayed or unable to come out to unlock the gates.
“We set this up long ago, that multiple keys were in possession of the Leleiwi Community Association and another community association out there. … Multiple contact people out there have keys in the event of events such as a tsunami,” he said.
But both of the community association members that Oliveira referred to the Tribune-Herald said that, to their knowledge, none of their members had ever received keys for the newest locks on the gates.
“They used to have a lesser chain and a smaller lock out there, but drug dealers and trash dumpers and other people who weren’t supposed to be back there were cutting the chain with bolt cutters, so now it has a heavier lock and chain,” said Leleiwi Community Association member Bob Wilkins. “… As far as I know, right now the only people who have keys to that are Hawaiian Homes and whomever they have given them to, which I believe is Civil Defense.”
Association member Chuck Gallagher said he, too, was not aware of any members in the neighborhood association who had keys.
“They did put me on the list to get a key for the lock, but I didn’t get one. I don’t think any of them (the association members) did,” he said.
Oliveira said that his office was contacted by a police dispatcher at 8:51 a.m. requesting the unlocking of the gate.
“I sent one of my guys down there, and while he was en route we sent out a call to members of the associations to unlock the gate,” he said. “When I got ahold of Chuck, my third call, he told me he didn’t have a key. Within minutes of that, I got a call that the gate had been unlocked.”
It was unclear Thursday evening who unlocked the gate.
Oliveira said that when he learned that some of the association members did not have keys, he contacted the fire department to discuss alternative ways of ensuring the gate is able to be unlocked in the future.
“One thing we’re looking at is installing KNOX-BOXes, which the fire department can access,” he said.
The small, mountable safes can be accessed by multiple users with identical keys, and hold keys to be used in emergency situations. They would solve one major problem associated with giving out keys to the gates to neighborhood members.
“As we found out, there may be issues when board members change, or when people move away,” Oliveira said. “We need to make sure that whatever system we set up is going to work 100 percent of the time.”
Oliveira added that while there was some confusion and miscommunication on Thursday about who had keys to the locks, the system currently in place has been proven effective.
“Based on past history with the events that have happened out there, as far as I am aware of, the gate has always been opened in time with the process that is in place,” he said. “We’ll be clarifying the process as we continue.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.