Chief Neves will retire after 42 years of service
Leila Fujimori, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Jan. 21—Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves announced Wednesday he will retire Feb. 28 after 42 years of servi ce—eight years as chief, holding the position longer than 14 of his predecessors.
Only four have surpassed Neves, the 34th chief since the Honolulu Fire Department’s inception in 1851. The 66-year-old is also just second in seniority at the department to one other at HFD.
Under his watch, HFD responded to historically major disasters, and Neves raced to the scene of many of them. They included Honolulu’s largest blaze in history—the fatal 2017 Marco Polo high-rise fire, the 2019 Dillingham Airfield plane crash that killed 11 and the deadly 2019 Hibiscus Drive fires.
He also led the charge in getting condos retrofitted with fire sprinklers after the Marco Polo blaze.
And Neves doubled the number of recruit classes to two a year to keep vacancies low, hiring 493 new firefighters from 16 recruit classes. To that end, he also established a program that allows those holding fire service certifications to cut training in half from eight to four months. The first class graduated in October.
The fire chief said he wanted to meet two goals before retiring : Serving former Mayor Kirk Caldwell in his two terms and reaching his eight-year anniversary as chief, and “all the planets lined up.” He also wants to spend more time with family, including a new granddaughter.
He announced his decision to the Honolulu Fire Commission Wednesday morning, but had discussed it with its members and Mayor Rick Blangiardi prior to that.
Neves began his career with the Honolulu Fire Department in 1979, working every rank except deputy chief from recruit to fire chief.
Neves has been credited with modernizing HFD’s emergency response fleet, acquiring 94 new pieces of fire apparatus, including 26 engines and six aerials. The department also now uses 16 rapid response vehicles for faster medical response.
Looking back, it’s about “serving the public on a day-to-day basis and working alongside your crews. That’s what brings the most joy, ” Neves said.
On July 14, 2017, Neves was attending a Summer Fun event in Salt Lake when the alarm came in for the Marco Polo fire, and he drove straight to the scene.
“We had to send 120 firefighters into a raging fire, ” Neves said. “For me as fire chief, standing outside, it’s heart-wrenching. Those are my men and women.”
“In my career, the worst thing that can happen to a supervisor or a fire chief is the loss of life of a firefighter, ” he said, recalling the 2016 death of firefighter Cliff Rigsbee, who died during a training exercise. And in 1992, firefighter Darrell Nam died during drills, while Neves was rescue captain.
“It’s a career that’s unforgiving, ” he said. “You have to always be vigilant in taking care of our members around us.”
Assistant Chief Socrates Bratakos praised Neves for his response in the Marco Polo fire. He and the mayor told the community what was going on, were straightforward and despite the damage and the four deaths, no firefighters were seriously injured.
“The chief can be proud of that, ” he said, adding that the measures he put into place including training on command, radio communication, how to “rescue ourselves and other firefighters, ” and how to plan for emergencies.
But the resulting condo sprinkler retrofitting bills, “He drove it. … Now a few years later, at least 100, 000 people are living where building managers are aware.
“It’s a great achievement for any fire chief when you can move the needle on public safety, ” Bratakos said.
Battalion chief Kevin Mokulehua said Neves inspired him to take a leadership role during a monthly personnel video message about six years ago in which he likened the department to a herd of cattle.
He recalls him saying : “At the front, you’re going to have the leaders leading the way. In the middle of the pack, everyone is following along. In the back, you have the stragglers. What do you want to be, leading the herd, or one of the guys in the back ?'”
“Wow. I want to be one of the guys up front, ” Mokulehua said to himself. “I don’t want to be locked in the massive pack in the middle, ” which led to his seeking a leadership role.
“He’s had some challenges, like most chiefs do, but in the end it’s always about providing service to the community and continuous improvement and caring for the guys.”
The firefighters union criticized HFD for its response to the Marco Polo fire and the state fined HFD $7, 000 for failure to properly bag contaminated protective gear and equipment.
Neves said as fire chief, on issues such as fireworks, “sometimes you have to put aside your own personal feelings, thoughts and habits. That’s the primary focus of a fire chief—to provide for a safer community, through prevention, preparedness and effective emergency response.”
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