Given Hawaii's topology and hydrology, the Honolulu Fire Department's search-and-rescue team has to deal with a wide — or is it wild? — array of calls.

When an incident occurs, 911 call-takers size-up the situation and dispatch a crew from the closest engine company to assess the scene further. Information gathered by the on-scene engine company helps the rescue team determine what search-and-rescue apparatus to deploy, be it a fire truck, helicopter or watercraft, Fire Chief Ken Silva said.

If the 911 caller has a GPS-equipped cell phone, the team can track his longitude and latitude, which comes in handy if he is drifting out into the ocean.

“It lets us pinpoint a user's location,” he said.

Honolulu firefighters carry 800 MHz two-way radios to communicate on the ground. There are many dead spots on the 800 MHz system, but the network still is essential to operations because the department often needs to communicate incident data with other local, state and federal agencies. For example, the fire department often teams with the Coast Guard and the Department of Natural Resources for search-and-rescue operations.

As a backup to the two-way radio, each firefighter carries a Nextel cellular phone — where the 800 MHz network has dead spots, the cell phones generally work. In addition, the cell phones let field personnel contact the 911 caller directly. The firefighters' phones are built with GPS location chips, so captains can track their teams on the ground. The department also can deploy a mobile vehicle armed with wireless communication technology to command an incident.

“If it was a large-scale rescue for a prolonged period of time, we do have a mobile command vehicle with a lot of communication and status boards, and we can revamp our chief structure and house everyone in that structure,” Silva said. “The remote post is often used as an emergency operations center and can help us handle an incident in a remote area.”

Silva said the department has been installing additional radio towers in remote areas to improve communication on the 800 MHz network. However, the technology becomes irrelevant when teams do rescues in deep canyons, where steep cliffs may drop off 1,600 feet.

“If victims and our firefighters are in that really remote area, I don't care what kind of radio system you have, it's not going to be able to pick them up,” he said.

Silva added that each rescue is unique and often they are at the mercy of the island when performing rescues. But a well-equipped and well-trained team of search-and-rescue personnel leads to many successful rescues.

“We have to ensure our entire personnel are properly trained, equipped and given the correct communications equipment before an incident happens, to give all the best chance to be successful,” he said.

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Mary Rose Roberts is the associate editor for Urgent Communications.