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Rurally Speaking: Fire Service Challenges in America’s Southernmost Location

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By Carl J. Haddon

Today is a Thursday morning in late January 2017, and the temperature is 87 degrees with 98 percent humidity. It’s hurricane season here and, at this moment, it’s raining so hard that the wipers on the commercial cab fire engine we’re in don’t stand a chance of keeping up. Our engineer/operator laughs as we pull over to wait out the squall under a large mango tree in the heart of one of the villages. I just realized that it probably doesn’t get any more “rural” than this in any other part of America. And no—I’m not in Hawaii or Florida.

I am on a teaching/consulting assignment on the island of Tutuila in the city of Pago Pago, American Samoa. Located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, American Samoa is a United States territory.

Although a tropical Polynesian paradise that is steeped in rich culture and tradition, American Samoa’s fire service faces many of the same challenges that rural fire departments face on the mainland of the United States—with a bit of a twist.

Resembling 1940s Hawaii, the island of Tutuila is home to roughly 65,000 people scattered over 24 square miles of tropical real estate. The majority of the population lives and works in the vicinity of Pago Pago. In addition to Tutuila, there are also sparsely populated outer islands that comprise part of American Samoa.

The fire department here is under the auspices of the Department of Public Safety, which also is responsible for the local police department (the cops here do not carry firearms). There are five fire stations here, but only two of those stations have apparatus in them. One of the staffed fire stations is at the international airport, where it houses one P-19 and two Striker ARFF fire trucks. The other staffed station is the main fire station in Pago Pago, which houses two engines and a tanker-pumper.

There is plenty of potential work for the fire department here, as American Samoa is home to one of the deepest water seaport harbors in the world, complete with a fuel tank farm. Additionally, Starkist Tuna has the world’s largest tuna canning operation here. For those old enough to remember, Pago Pago is the original home of “Charlie Tuna.” The international airport (two runways) also has two smaller lagoons on property in between runways and it is bordered by a very large lagoon on either side of the runways for which the airport fire department provides for all water rescue/recovery operations that occur there (see photos).  n 2009, American Samoa saw a major Tsunami (tidal wave) that killed 30 and wiped out a big portion of the inhabited areas of the island. It is also susceptible to earthquakes.

Like many areas of the rural fire service on the mainland and around the world, there are no minimum fire training standards here, and the average age of these fire crews continues to rise, with seemingly little interest in our honored profession from the younger generations. As a result, firefighter recruitment and retention is also a huge issue that we have in common. Also, like many areas of the domestic rural fire service, this area struggles to get firefighters to training. Similar too is the fact that many firefighters here have to wear more than one hat. Not only do many of them have other jobs, but when tones drop, they often have to decide if they’re hopping into an ambulance (not fire department based), fire truck, tow truck, or “other” emergency response vehicle or vessel.

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that there were many similarities between rural departments here on the island and those back at home, but with a bit of a twist—all firefighters here in American Samoa are full time paid career staff. There are no volunteer firefighters here. Before you get to thinking “how cool is that,” allow me to share with you that full time paid career firefighters on this U.S. Territory island nation make less than $15 per hour (maximum). For perspective, their maximum pay rate is less than minimum wage in many states, hence the reasons that many of these souls have other jobs in addition to their fire department careers. Many of those who do achieve recognized fire training certifications eventually leave the island in search of higher paying jobs in the fire service on the mainland of the U.S.

Response times here on the island are another interesting challenge that it shares with rural departments here in the states, however, for a slightly different reason. This island’s roadways are all two-lane roads (or single-lane roads), and the kicker here is that the maximum speed limit on the island is 25mph! There is one main two-lane road that runs around two-thirds of the circumference of the island, and that road parallels and is directly adjacent to the ocean, with sheer volcanic-jungle-covered mountains that take up much of the other side of the road. Even with a 25-mph speed limit, you might be as surprised as I was to learn just how many really bad traffic wrecks there are here. Believe it or not, riding in the open bed of pickup trucks, of which there are many, is routine and not illegal. Major trauma-causing ejections are quite commonplace here.

As you can see, our brother and sister firefighters here in American Samoa have their hands full and work under many of the same rural conditions that exist here on the rural mainland. Through all of those challenges, similar to ours or not, the wonderful souls of the Samoan fire service welcomed us with open arms, and their hospitality is second to none. Our training work here has just begun, and we look forward to the tasks that lie ahead. Until next time, Fa’afetai and Manuia le po (thank you and goodnight).

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.