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Maui County EMS chief bids farewell

Over 45 years, Morimoto responded to major crises

Curt Morimoto, operations manager for American Medical Response, stands outside the 911 ambulance provider’s Kahului headquarters last month. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

KAHULUI — After 45 years of working in emergency medical services, Curt Morimoto is calling it a career.

He is retiring as operations manager for American Medical Response, ending a job path that took him from Hilo to Seattle, then Honolulu, before he moved to Maui in 1984.

He worked as a paramedic on Maui for 10 years before becoming operations manager, or Maui County EMS chief, in 1994 when the company took over emergency medical services operations in the county under a state Department of Health 911 EMS contract.

“I’m ready, and it’s time,” Morimoto said recently of his impending retirement from the job overseeing 81 employees, including 77 field emergency medical technicians on Maui, Molokai and Lanai. “I can’t really complain. Early on, this is what I wanted to do. I got to do a lot, see a lot, definitely learned a lot on the administration side, doing projects.”

He said his only immediate plans are to relax and not have AMR business to worry about.

That would be in contrast to a career that put him in the center of unexpected emergencies and unprecedented events for decades.

He said the most memorable was on April 28, 1988, when an 18-foot section of a Boeing 737 cabin’s roof was ripped off, creating explosive decompression at 24,000 feet, as Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was en route from Hilo to Honolulu. A flight attendant was sucked out of the plane before its pilot and first officer guided the badly damaged plane and its 89 passengers to Kahului Airport.

“I was the first paramedic on scene with Medic-1 and couldn’t believe that we received the call as a miscellaneous accident on board an incoming flight,” Morimoto said. “I anticipated a hot coffee spill or a trip-and-fall in the aisle.

“Receiving 911 miscellaneous accident assignments from dispatch was never the same after that day.”

Although 65 passengers and crew members were injured and many were admitted to the hospital for observation or transferred to Oahu hospitals, “everybody recovered,” Morimoto said.

When “Miracle Landing,” a television movie about the event, was filmed on Maui a couple of years later, Morimoto was among those staffing ambulances hired for the production. He had a nonspeaking role as an ambulance driver while Flight 243 pilot Robert “Bob” Schornstheimer and First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins played paramedics in the movie.

Morimoto, who was born and raised in Hilo, attended college in Seattle and became an emergency medical technician in Washington state in 1976, working as an EMT and volunteer firefighter in Federal Way.

“I became captivated with Seattle’s Medic-One EMS program, as it was one of the premier paramedic programs in the nation,” he said.

His interest switched from dentistry to pre-hospital paramedicine before he returned to Hawaii in 1979. In Honolulu, he worked as an emergency room technician at Kuakini Medical Center, then became a paramedic through the only Mobile Intensive Care Technician program at Queen’s Medical Center. He worked as a paramedic for the City and County of Honolulu before moving to Maui in 1984 to work for International Life Support ambulance.

After being promoted to operations manager for AMR, “initially, I did miss the field,” he said.

“I still miss running calls,” said Morimoto, who still has his paramedic license. “I’m not missing it as much as before.”

“For us, a good call is actually a bad call,” he said. “We save somebody. Other people say a guy almost died. For us, it was a really good critical case. We may have made a difference.”

At times, family members and patients, even some from the Mainland, have made contact afterward to thank ambulance crews.

“That really is gratifying,” Morimoto said. “The crews feel good. At the time, they’re just doing their job. They don’t realize the impact they’re making.”

Through the years, Morimoto worked with many county fire and police chiefs who retired before him, including Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu and Fire Chief David Thyne this year. He said many of those he worked with side by side in the field, including emergency medical services colleagues statewide, retired long ago.

“There are only a couple of paramedics in Hawaii with more time than me still working in this profession,” he said. “But I am honored to have stuck around this long and worked alongside public safety partners and peers throughout my career.”

Morimoto is leaving after unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic affected all of the EMS workers,” he said. “Everybody was so concerned. It lasted a long time.”

Now, worries about the pandemic are subsiding and emergency calls are rising after a decline last year.

“Our numbers are back up,” he said. “Now, we’re as busy as we were before the pandemic, back to normal.”

When airline flights had all but stopped in May 2020, emergency medical crews were responding to barely 1,000 calls a month, Morimoto said. This May, with the surge in tourists to Maui, crews responded to 1,700 calls and transported about 900 patients, he said.

Morimoto had planned to retire July 9 but agreed to stay on until his job is filled.

He said he appreciates all his co-workers, crediting them for allowing him to continue working as long as he has. “The Maui County EMS ohana has been a caring group,” he said. “They have always been humble professionals that prefer not to be in the limelight but are always there 100 percent when called on. They are the ones standing in the back of the room.”

In retirement, he may get a part-time job, but it will not be much, Morimoto said.

“Maybe a volunteer lei greeter at the airport. Something with zero stress,” he said with a smile.

“I will miss the work and may wake one morning and regret retiring,” he said. After a pause, he laughed and said, “Nah, probably not.”

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

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