The Maui Fire Department has appointed its first battalion chief of ocean safety, who will help facilitate the long-awaited merger between the department and the county's Division of Ocean Safety.
Paia Fire Capt. Colin Yamamoto, a 27-year-veteran of the Maui Fire Department, was promoted to the position, effective Saturday. The Wailuku resident began his firefighting career in 1987 and has since served at the Wailuku, Lahaina, Kahului, Hana, Napili, Makawao and Paia fire stations. He was promoted to the rank of captain in 2002.
"Being stationed in Paia along the north shore, I have had many incidents with the ocean safety lifeguards and have worked well together with them. I have an understanding of their current operations," Yamamoto said in an email.
"I'm organized and eager to work towards a positive service for our community under the direction of (Fire) Chief (Jeff) Murray."
As battalion chief, Yamamoto will be in charge of facilitating the merger between the Fire Department and the county's Division of Ocean Safety, brought on by a charter amendment approved in the 2012 general election. Afterwards, he will oversee more than 50 ocean safety officials along the north, south and west shores of Maui and work with the other fire chiefs to coordinate ocean rescues.
"This is the first big step to move forward from our side," Maui Fire Chief Jeff Murray told The Maui News on Friday. "It's challenging because it's new."
He said it took more than seven months just to pen the job requirements for the battalion chief of ocean safety position because fire and county officials had to agree on the responsibilities of the new position.
"Basically, we want to combine everything and work out new policies to better what we do for the public, that's the bottom line," Murray said.
He said Yamamoto's decade of experience as a captain, hard-work ethic and "ability to get things done" were all factors in why he was selected for the job.
While no deadline has been set for the merger, Murray said that he hopes to have everything running smoothly by July 2015.
It hasn't been an easy process. There are issues related to the budget, collective bargaining agreements, staffing and training policies and response protocols that need to be worked out.
"When we do a new fire station, we have to recalculate every single bit of data, every type of call that comes into dispatch, then redraw the line of district," Murray said. "So now, we got to see how they (ocean safety) can fit within our plans."
Staffing disparities also pose further complications to the merger, Murray said. Ocean safety officials are on duty usually eight hours of the day, whereas firefighters work around the clock. Pool lifeguards currently are able to cover ocean lifeguards' shifts but will not be able to after the merger because pool lifeguards will remain with the county Department of Parks and Recreation. Fire officials may have to negotiate how to extend coverage at the beaches while staying within the hours agreed upon in the lifeguards' collective bargaining agreement.
"Ironing out mergers like this, as simple as they may seem on paper, the bottom line is the employees pay the price for bad decisions from the top," Murray said. "For me, I want to see things done right from the beginning, because if you're spending time . . . (doing) damage control, it's a waste of time."
Murray said he would rather take more time to ensure the merger is done correctly, with the interests of both sides taken into account, than to rush.
"Once they become us, that's one family. You cannot treat your kids different, 'Oh, I like this one better,' " Murray said. "I cannot pit one Jet Ski against one fire truck, it's all or nothing."
Ocean safety officials have lobbied nearly eight years to transfer their division from the county Department of Parks and Recreation to one that "makes more sense" for public safety.
"When there's an ocean rescue, we respond alongside the Fire Department, we back each other up, hand in hand," said acting Ocean Safety Officer Supervisor Cary Kayama. "The merger would give us additional resources, it'll make things run a bit smoother, we can train with each other a lot more. . . . It just makes sense."
He added that ocean lifeguards undergo rigorous physical training and mandatory certifications that resemble requirements expected of firefighters.
Kayama spoke highly of the newly promoted battalion chief and said he is looking forward to having Yamamoto facilitate the merger.
"Our guys see him (surfing) at Hookipa all the time. He's a good athlete, he's been with the Fire Department a long time, he's been involved with a lot of ocean rescue calls so he's familiar with what goes on at the beach and in the water," Kayama said.
"He's just someone who is really passionate about his job and wants to make sure we have the equipment and the skills to do the job. . . . He's not a slacker," Kayama said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.