Before Hawaiʻi’s firefighters get the honor of serving their community in this coveted civil service role, first they have to fight their way out of a massive pool of eager candidates vying for the same spot. But thanks to four retired fire captains on a mission to help ease the intense application process, the struggle to stand out can become a lot less daunting. Retired Honolulu Fire Capt. Richard Soo leads the intense eight-week study sessions at Papakōlea Community Center, where he the other instructors share their manaʻo with students gunning for a spot on Hawaiʻi’s local fire departments. What’s even more incredible is that the entire experience is totally volunteer-run and free to anyone willing to put in the work.
After dedicating 27 years to the Honolulu Fire Department and serving as its first Public Information Officer (PIO), Soo wanted a way to share his love for his life’s work and ensure talented recruits improve their chances of success. “I was awarded my Hawaiian Homes lot in 2001 at Kalawahine Streamside and I recognized the need for a career path for young Hawaiian adults who do not pursue a college education following high school graduation,” he says.
Papakōlea-based nonprofit Kula No Na Poʻe Hawaiʻi helps fund the students’ textbooks and other supplies, and the community center offers the space free of charge. Though the program gives preference to Native Hawaiians, classes are open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED.
Now in the training program’s ninth year, the main thing Soo wants people to know is that the classes are designed to create well-rounded appli- cants. “We teach them how to sit for two hours and take a 100-question test,” he says.
Over eight consecutive Saturdays, the captains focus on various aspects of the job and application process – from time management to practice tests, fire safety, department etiquette, and even inter- viewing tips and agility pointers. Captain Soo and fellow captains Gilbert Pelletier, Guy Katayama, Earle Kealoha and Curtis Aiwohi guide students through the nuances of the Fire Fighter Entrance Exam, reviewing missed questions and strategizing on performance enhancement tools.
Some days are spent in fire houses, cleaning the trucks. “We want them to see the reality of life as a firefighter and be prepared to take it all on,” says Captain Soo. “The students can use the same skillset we teach here for any test.”
The sessions aren’t just one-sided; students also get a chance to critique their teachers and provide feedback, allowing the leaders to constantly tweak their style to better support the students. At the end, students are given certificates of completion.
Since the department only takes an average of 100 recruits out of 5,000 applicants, and the written test is offered once every three years, every little bit of knowledge counts. Over the program’s nine years, they’ve seen 38 out of their 400 students get hired by local fire departments.
Reis Yonehiro will fly to Maui to test for Maui County Fire Department, after realizing that his true calling involves helping people in need. He found the most valuable aspect of the training sessions to be the comprehension reviews of practice tests, which helped him identify per- sonal weak spots. “Learning from past firefighters who lived this life gives us a strong flavor of what it’s really like to be a firefighter, and this strong connection with kūpuna is very important,” he says. “Their continuing encouragement fuels our motivation. It feels like we’re building a sense of ‘ohana.”
Jessica Penner was a firefighter in Florida, but missed passing the State exam by two points. Now she’s getting ready to test for City and County next year. “It’s been an amazing experience, and we’re so lucky to have these instructors give up their time for us,” she says. “It’s a good community of like-minded individuals, and together we are helping each other. I feel much more confident than I did the first time around.”
What happens after test day? If any of the program students make it past the written portion, Soo and team go the extra mile to run candidates through a Physical Agility Training (PAT) session, host mock interviews to mirror the actual panel interview, and critique their resume and interview performance.
Looking forward, Soo hopes the next step is to apply this training statewide utilizing Hawaiian homestead community centers on the neighbor islands. “This could be a game changer for the applicants and their families,” he says. “This job can really make them a productive member of society, and the training sessions can cement their desire to be firefighters.”