Helping to Keep Hawaii Schools Safe, Secure and Prepared
When Kilauea volcano on Hawaii Island explosively erupted in May 2018, Unit 6 member Orasa Fernandez was living and working on Oahu. She had no idea that this catastrophic volcanic event, which destroyed over 700 homes and displaced communities and families, ironically would give her an opportunity to finally move back home to Hilo.
As one of three safety and security specialists in the Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness Branch of the state Department of Education, Fernandez was selected to go to Hawaii Island for several weeks from May to June and worked with a damage assessment team from the Office of School Facilities and Support Services. She served as support for damage assessment at 17 schools and as a liaison. “Luckily lava flow did not threaten any of the DOE schools and facilities,” Fernandez said. “Schools remained open and continued daily operations although air quality was a concern. Schools worked to ensure students and staff were safe and provided a safe environment for students to learn and employees to support and teach our children.”
As Kilauea continued to erupt, the DOE recognized the need to have a safety and security specialist on Hawaii Island so Fernandez’s position was permanently relocated to Hilo in August. Fernandez, a single mother, was elated. “I always wanted to return home to Hilo, but I also knew that jobs were hard to come by,” she said. “I knew that it was a dream and I would have to wait until I retire. I never thought the opportunity of moving home was going to happen anytime soon. When the opportunity came knocking last summer, I was more than happy to accept the move to Big Island.”
During the eruption, Fernandez and the damage assessment team regularly met with agencies such as Hawaii County Civil Defense, state Department of Health, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Hawaii County Police Department, American Red Cross – Hawaii, and DOE Complex District Office and Schools. Working closely with these agencies, they established and built partnerships and received first-hand understanding of the operations on Hawaii Island during emergencies and the coordination of emergency response.
Nearly a year after the eruption, Fernandez, who was born and raised in Hilo, said recovery efforts are ongoing. “Students, families and the community are still affected by the eruption event, even though the lava stopped in late August,” she noted. “There is a lot of emotions and feeling of loss for some residents. The effects of losing one’s home do not simply go away.”
Fernandez has an office at Pahoa High & Intermediate School, but the work she does is for all schools statewide, providing leadership and direction in the planning and development of safety and security programs for campuses. Her focus is on emergency readiness and preparation. “It’s great to have a specialist on island that can be readily available if a situation occurs here,” she said. “It was helpful during the recent Winter Storm Event, where I was able to attend the Hawaii County Civil Defense meeting and provide immediate assistance to the numerous partners in emergency management.”
As part of her job responsibilities, Fernandez ensures schools are prepared for an emergency, whether it’s manmade such as a bomb threat or a natural disaster such as a hurricane, by ensuring schools have an emergency action plan in place and conduct annual required drills. She works with the various agencies involved with shelter operations during a statewide emergency since the DOE schools are used as emergency shelters. She is involved with Makani Pahili, the state of Hawaii’s annual hurricane preparedness exercise involving all counties and state stakeholders.
In addition, she provides schools with assistance in disposing of unwanted hazardous materials such as science chemicals. In fact, Fernandez was instrumental in helping to re-develop and re-organize the DOE’s AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) Program that once was the responsibility of the Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness Branch and Hazardous Materials Program, an accomplishment which she is most proud of.
One former colleague appreciatively remembers Fernandez, particularly with her help in the disposal of questionable bloody substance at a Kauai school. Solette Perry, an HGEA union agent in Hilo who previously worked as an administrative services assistant with the DOE’s Kauai Complex – Kapaa Complex (Hanalei/Kilauea/Kapaa Elementary/Kapaa Middle/Kapaa High School), said Fernandez provided her and the school with information and assistance in the proper disposal of the material. “Orasa is extremely knowledgeable in her profession and was very professional and helpful both in assisting in the disposal and in the identification of hazardous materials,” Perry said. “The Department of Education is very fortunate that they have Orasa as the subject area expert in her field of work.”
The DOE’s Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness Branch ensures that DOE schools and facilities are in compliance with agencies such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. Fernandez works closely with Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management, and Hawaii County Civil Defense, and conducts ongoing safety and emergency preparedness training to school administrators and personnel.
Having been with the DOE for 18 years, nine with the Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness Branch, Fernandez is constantly learning on the job and takes the initiative to expand her knowledge and experience and learn new skills. She has taken continuing education courses that included safety, emergency management, and Homeland Security studies, and has received various certificates. “I just want to make sure I provide the best service I can and finish the task at hand,” she said. “Motivation is our kids, students and staff. My passion is serving our community, helping one another, and making things better now and for future generations to come.”
It is the memory of being on Hawaii Island as part of the damage assessment team last year that Fernandez will never forget, and not just for the fact that the experience brought her back home. She loved the camaraderie of being with people from the different agencies. “My team, while driving, sang along with the radio and got me to sing along with them,” she said, with a chuckle.
“I really enjoy my job. It has been a journey of growth, experience and networking. It has been a ride that I could not imagine.”