The firefighter’s chief
Jeff Murray retires as second longest serving chief, willing to get into the mud and smoke
Rain was still falling as Fire Chief Jeff Murray and Battalion Chief Allen Duarte discussed the rescue operation after firefighters evacuated Iao Valley residents trapped by raging floodwaters.
“Allen and I were talking about how lucky we are to be standing here,” Murray said, recalling how firefighters had moved quickly to bring residents to safety because another downpour was expected the night of Sept. 13, 2016.
Then, in the dark, “we heard this guy yelling,” Murray said.
Duarte, who had managed the scene and was nearly swept away himself, was going to head back out to find the man.
“I said, ‘You stay here. I go. You’re already dirty,’ ” Murray recalled. “I put on my headlamp and radio, tightened my boots, went straight to where they were.”
As it turned out, the bottom floor of the man’s pole house had washed away along, with his vehicles. His wife and her 92-year-old father were on the second floor.
Firefighters carried the older man out and helped the couple across the Wailuku River, which that night experienced its largest recorded stream flow in the valley since 1951.
“I miss that work,” said Murray, who was a fire search-and-rescue captain before being selected as chief. “It’s something where you challenge yourself and you make one difference for somebody else.
“This is what I wanted to do. I really love what I do — some days, not so much the chief’s job, but always serving the public.”
After a more than 34-year firefighting career that started in the Air Force and continued for 29-plus years in the Maui Fire Department, Murray, 52, retired Saturday.
He was fire chief for more than 10 years, serving longer than anyone but Joseph F. Souza, Maui’s first fire chief in 1924.
Murray joined the Fire Department in May 1989, starting in the Lanai Fire Station and working at the Kihei station and on the rescue crew. He was promoted to Firefighter III in 1992 and to lieutenant in 1995. Four years later, he was promoted to captain.
When Murray was sworn into the fire chief’s job in April 2008, Robert Shimada was deputy chief.
“What he should be remembered for is really changing the face of the department,” said Shimada, who was deputy for nine years before retiring last year. “He went in and really overhauled everything, really changed the way we did things. I think the department is better prepared to face any kind of natural disaster or large-scale fire.
“He really took the department to a new level with the training, with the equipment. We just made vast improvements in all areas.”
The Maui Fire Department did more training than other fire departments, said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association.
“When you look at the departments statewide, I would say they’re probably the most progressive fire department in the state right now, based on their training,” Lee said.
He said union officials appreciated working with Murray.
“He’s a good guy,” Lee said. “He works really hard. He had a very cooperative and collaborative style that really encouraged positive union-management relations. We’re going to miss him.
“He clearly put the community and the firefighters first. It wasn’t about him. It was about taking care of the community and making sure the firefighters had the equipment, the tools they needed.”
As part of trying to achieve accreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, Murray revamped the training process to develop a cadre system so firefighters trained in a specific discipline also became instructors for other firefighters. Instead of paying $30,000 for one or two instructors from the Mainland to do training, the department spent $5,000 to $8,000 to train its own firefighters to become experts in 17 fields such as auto extrication, dive rescue and fire ground operations, Murray said.
“You have all of these instructors that are so vested into what they’re doing,” said Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro, who was captain of the Training Bureau. “It’s contagious.”
“It forces the whole department to move in that direction,” Murray said. “Every single aspect is about the safety of us and the people we’re trying to save.
“If there’s anything all firefighters agree on, it’s training to be safe and to do the right thing. Each and every one of us rely on each other. Once you have that pride and professionalism, everything else comes with it.”
Along with better training, Murray’s tenure was marked by development of a joint training center with state firefighters and initiation of an incident management team to handle large incidents, Duarte said.
“The department made some tremendous growth during his tenure,” said Duarte, who had been the senior battalion chief before he retired June 1. “What we do in training is much more progressive than what had been done in the past. We have people come over to attend training with us.”
Murray wasn’t able to see the department achieve the goal of accreditation, in part because of geographic challenges of a fire department spanning three islands. To reach a fire in Keanae, it might take Hana firefighters 40 minutes, a longer response time than standards allow.
“The process of accreditation was not a failure,” Duarte said. “I think we learned a lot about our department.”
Murray said the department did reach certification level, which was significant.
Some goals were stymied by the Fire Department’s budget, which made headlines over the years as the department sought approval for additional funding from the County Council.
“Budget was always a battle,” said Charles Hirata, chairman of the Maui County Fire & Public Safety Commission. “It’s very expensive to run a fire department. Parts for the fire engine are expensive. Fires are very expensive.”
Another cost is the contract for the department’s rescue helicopter, which is often called out “for either ocean or rapid-water rescues, especially when we have a lot of tourists who want to go into the sketchy areas and get themselves into trouble,” Hirata said.
He said the Fire Department also struggled with a shortage of personnel while complying with the rank-for-rank provision of the union contract requiring that firefighter vacancies be filled with a firefighter of the same rank.
The County Council sought to cut vacant battalion chief positions, which Murray said were needed to manage fire operations as the demand for fire service grew. In its last budget, the council did approve funding for the positions, but as limited assignments, Murray said.
In the past decade, the number of emergency fire calls has grown from about 8,900 a year in 2008 to about 15,800 now, Murray said. At the same time, he said Fire Department staffing has increased minimally, with fewer than 10 additional firefighters and more than 10 additional support staff.
When Murray became chief, an economic downturn was starting and cutbacks were made. “The last few years, times are better,” he said. “We still haven’t caught up.”
Along with 306 uniformed firefighters and 21 support staff, the department now includes 61 lifeguards who were transitioned in from the Division of Ocean Safety in the county Department of Parks & Recreation.
The lifeguard transition took effect July 2, 2016, the same day six hikers were stranded when a fire started in Maalaea.
After being notified about the fire, Murray watched from his roof in Pukalani and could see the flames spreading quickly.
With only one battalion chief working, “I couldn’t get there fast enough,” Murray said. “It was that big and that fast, and the wind was howling that day, 40 miles an hour or more.”
Part of the job, Murray said, is to anticipate what field commanders need. “And that day specifically, he needed help,” Murray said.
Murray escorted a field trailer from Kahului Airport to help fight the 4,700-acre fire.
“You cannot rely on luck,” Murray said. “What causes luck is skill and accuracy. If you don’t train for that, luck’s not on your side.”
Hirata said Murray’s presence was noteworthy at some major scenes.
“He was personally involved. He was in the water rescuing people,” Hirata said. “That shows leading from the front.”
Over the years, Murray received favorable annual job evaluations from the commission.
“Generally, he did a really good job,” Hirata said. “He’s very likable, very sociable. He’s a good people person. He’s put a good face to the Fire Department.”
Go Pink, the department’s largest community service project, had on-duty firefighters wearing specially designed pink T-shirts in October as part of a fundraising campaign benefiting cancer patients and survivors through the Pacific Cancer Foundation. It raised “well over $200,000 in the last eight or nine years,” Murray said.
Firefighters also challenged police officers in Battle of the Badges flag football and softball games to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui.
“It was showing that police and fire are part of the community,” Murray said. “We’re just regular people doing something a little different. Our giveback to the community is a big deal.”
Murray said there were times when he thought he might leave the job sooner.
“It’s a stressful job,” he said. “Because of the great people, we’re able to go this long and this strong.
“I learned from some of the greatest people we have. I thank them all for that.”
While he won’t miss the phone buzzing with incident alerts any time of the day or night, Murray said he will miss those he worked with.
“We just got great people,” he said. “They believe and they chose to make things better.”
He still will help with training and will serve as vice president of the Hawaii Fire Chiefs Association until 2020.
And he won’t rule out stopping at fire scenes to lend a hand.
“This job was in me before I started, and it’s going to be in me till I die,” Murray said. “My main thing was to be a firefighter’s chief — somebody that understands what they do and is willing to support them, even when it’s not the easy decision to make.”
Murray said he plans to spend more time with family, including his wife, Angela, his 12-year-old daughter, 16- and 14-year-old sons, two stepsons and two grandchildren. Murray’s oldest son, Keali’i, is a firefighter at the Makawao Fire Station.
He also plans to “get reacquainted with the outdoors” through surfing, diving and fishing.
“It’s been such an honor to even wear our uniform, let alone serve as the chief,” he said. “I’m blessed, really nothing to complain about. I’m sad but I’m happy. I think it’s time. Not everybody has this opportunity. You got to say thank you.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.