Sounding sirens for wildfires in Hawaiʻi may soon be standard emergency protocol
Maui Emergency Management Agency has been roundly criticized for not sounding sirens to alert people to the Aug. 8 fire in Lahaina, which became the countryʻs deadliest in a century with at least 115 people perishing. But when a brush fire broke out near residences in Kāʻanapali on Saturday, there was no hesitation in blaring the sirens.
Darryl Oliveira, the new interim administrator of Maui Emergency Management Agency, said that likely will be the case with future wildfires on Maui — and across the State of Hawaiʻi.
He said he was in talks Tuesday morning with officials from the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency and all four counties about codifying a new emergency response protocol to use sirens during wildfires everywhere in the state.
He said it could become official “within days.”
“We need to incorporate more tools into our arsenal to serve the public and we are giving the early warning,” he said during a news conference Tuesday in Wailuku. “We haven’t had sirens in the past for wildfires. As we go forward, we need to educate the public on what they need to do.”
And, with parts of the state currently under a Red Flag Watch, with the elevated fire risk due to strong winds and dry/drought conditions, there is no time like the present to take action.
Oliveira said this new protocol would have to be approved by Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green and the four County mayors.
Maui County had 80 emergency sirens, which are part of the state-wide emergency warning system that is used to warn against disasters, both man-made and natural, including tsunamis, hurricanes, flooding and dam breeches.
But no sirens were sounded while the fast-moving fire was destroying Lahaina, forcing people to run for their lives and jump into the ocean. By the time many people learned of the fire, it was too late to escape, many trapped in their homes or cars.
Many people believe lives could have been saved if the sirens were used.
Hernan Andaya, who was the Emergency Management Agency Administrator during the fire, defended his decision not to use the sirens before he resigned.
He said they were designed for tsunami warnings. He explained that he feared if he used sirens, people who heard them would think there was a tsunami and run up the mountain — and right into the fire.
Andaya also said sirens were not part of the agency’s standard response protocol for wildfires. Oliveira said he expects this soon will no longer be the case.
Earlier reporting on Maui Now notes that the list of Siren Facts on the HI-EMA website already had wildfires included as a reason to use the sirens: “The all-hazard siren system can be used for a variety of both natural and human-caused events; including tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents, and more.”
With several of the Maui sirens destroyed during the fires, Oliveira also said temporary ones will be put in place for the short-term.
On the Big Island, Deputy Fire Chief Eric Moller is supportive of using sirens for wildfires.
“If we have a fast-moving fire, sirens would be beneficial to let people know what’s going on,” he said.
The request for siren warnings to be included as part of the emergency response is not new, said Hawaiʻi County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd.
On July 30, 2021, the Mana Road Fire on the Big Island scorched 40,000 acres and took at least a week to contain. The blaze forced three South Kohala communities to evacuate: Waikōloa, Pu‘ukapu Hawaiian Homestead Lands and Waki‘i.
The fire also consumed livestock and at least two homes. Mana Road Fire is believed to be one of the largest, if not the largest, brush fire in the state.
After that historic fire, Todd said he went to Hawai‘i County Civil Defense about a siren system for the Waikōloa area. He felt a siren was needed to notify the Waikōloa community to tune into the radio or other emergency notifications.
“Twenty years ago, radio and televisions were a fine way to alert the public, but now, not everyone has a radio. They’re listening to music on their phones,” Todd said.
While he’s spoken to Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, Todd said it’s not in his wheelhouse to get this type of equipment installed.
The emergency siren system was installed in Hawaiʻi in the 1940s, and is part of the Hawaiʻi Statewide Alert and Warning System (SAWS), which includes FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS). It uses both the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to alert the public.
It was originally built to alert the public of a myriad emergencies, including attacks by foreign countries during World War II, and in recent decades it has come to be associated primarily with tsunamis.
“We need to change the narrative if we’re going to use the sirens for other emergencies,” Moller said.
He said there needs to be public education so communities respond appropriately to the crisis.
Oliveira agreed. And, to make the change will require the help of both the press and the public.
“It’s going to require your help to put up a good marketing and education campaign … so that includes our visitor population to be informed of what to do as well,” he said.
Pacific Media Group news reporter Tiffany DeMasters contributed to this report.