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MPD provides masks to officers in wake of recent brush fires

Move comes in response to a complaint of safety, health hazards

WAILUKU — The Maui Police Department is making protective masks available to police officers following a complaint about safety and health hazards when respiratory protection wasn’t provided to officers responding to recent wildfires.

Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said last week that the department also is looking into whether masks that are more heavy-duty should be purchased and assigned to officers.

“It was a concern brought to our attention,” Faaumu said Wednesday. “We’re looking into it.”

In a July 23 letter, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division asked MPD to investigate the complaint.

“There was no respiratory protection program established and implemented to protect emergency responders while carrying out their duties, such as responding to wildfires,” the letter says. “No respiratory protection was provided to the responding officers.”

During wildfires this summer, police officers worked alongside firefighters to evacuate homes and close roads. While firefighters had respirators and other protective equipment, police officers said they didn’t have protection from the toxic smoke.

Faaumu said police officers usually work in a buffer or safety zone outside of the firefighters’ “red zone.”

But on July 11, when brush ignited near Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road, “the fire moved so fast, it caught officers in the midst of it,” Faaumu said.

Officers closed roads and evacuated residents near the fire, which grew to about 9,000 acres.

Similarly, officers ran into burning areas to evacuate families in Lahaina when fires burned more than 2,000 acres from Maalaea to Kaanapali last year.

Faaumu said police are working with county risk management officials and are doing a study to see if it’s warranted to equip police officers with protective masks. Such masks would have to be fitted to each individual officer, Faaumu said.

He said police officers with the MPD Special Response Team and Special Enforcement Emergency Detail already are assigned such masks.

Faaumu said cost isn’t the main consideration in deciding whether to buy the masks. “We want to make sure of the safety of the officers,” he said.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.