Q+A: Kenneth Silva

After 24 years with the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD), Kenneth Silva takes on the role of chief. This month, following a three-month-long selection process and a review of 13 internal candidates, Silva was chosen to replace retiring Chief Attilio Leonardi. Silva and the department are also planning to move into the new headquarters in Kaka'ako.
photo: Jimmy Forrest

Q: What has been a defining moment of your career?

A: The Sacred Falls incident on Mother’s Day a few years back. The call came in like any other, then the scope of it began to unfold. There were a lot of challenges that day, but everyone worked without end, they saved a lot of lives, and they risked their lives in the process. We learned a lot as a department that day, but I think one of the biggest lessons we learned was, how do we take care of our own people?

Q: How does your family feel about your job?

A: When I was in the field, my kids were real young—they had no idea what I did. My wife never really did mention it, but it’s a dangerous profession. You try to minimize the risk. But you also accept that it’s your chosen profession. That’s why, as fire chief, one of your priorities is to make sure that everyone goes home at the end of the day.

Q: So, as the fire chief, you don’t respond to calls anymore?

A: For the fire chief to have to respond to an incident, all hell has broken loose. The terminology is that we’re part of what they call a "unified command," so if there’s a major incident, like a terrorist bombing, we’d be in a war room somewhere dealing with staffing, logistics.

Q: Do you miss being out there?

A: I miss responding to large-scale alarms, coming onto a scene, trying to bring order out of chaos. I miss the camaraderie of being in the station, station life. You work 10 days a month and you work 24-hour shifts, so you really share another life with your family in the fire department.

Q: It seems like everyone has a story of a friend who’s desperate to get into the fire department. Why is it such a popular career?

A: You don’t do the same thing every day. You respond to fires, medical emergencies, you train for terrorism and large-scale disasters. And I think there’s a little bit of glamour that goes with it.

And there are very few jobs you can get direct satisfaction from: I go someplace, I see a fire, I put it out, a family is happy and I move on. You get that instant satisfaction of helping people and that’s the bottom line. If that’s not your main motivation, then really, it’s not your line of duty.

Q: What part of your job would surprise the general public?

A: Fire fighters make the ideal spouse. Part of our job is maintaining everything. We clean, mop, scrub the toilets. All of these things, and on top of that, learn how to cook, because that’s a big part of our culture. Your reputation is, to a great deal, based on your ability to cook. But not only cook, you have to be able to plan a meal, shop and cook a hot meal. You need to have a salad, rice and two hot dishes and you gotta do that within your budget.