The Inertia

Hawaii has the largest single integrated public safety outdoor siren warning system in the world, yet while wildfires raged through Maui, they laid silent. Criticism from citizens has prompted a statement from Maui authorities defending the decision.

The statewide system is made up of more than 400 emergency sirens dotted across Hawaii, 80 of which are on Maui. The decision of whether to sound the alarms fell to Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya. At a news conference Wednesday, he told CBS News that he did not regret the decision to not activate the system.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded,” Andaya said. He also stated that the sirens are primarily used to warn of tsunamis, which is why “almost all of them are found on the coast line.”

“Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside) … and if that was the case then they would have gone into the fire,” he said.

“I should also note that there are no sirens mauka, or on the mountainside, where the fire was spreading down,” he said, “so even if we sounded the sirens [it] would not have saved those people on the mountainside, mauka.”

The Maui County-run website for the sirens does specifically name wildfires as a reason for an alarm to sound. “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,” reads the site. In the same section citizens are told that, “When a siren tone is heard other than a scheduled test… If you are in a low laying area near the coastline; evacuate to high grounds, inland, or vertically to the 4th floor and higher of a concrete building.”

Andaya told CBS the agency’s “internal protocol” for wildfires is to use both Wireless Emergency Alerts — text alerts sent to cell phones — and the Emergency Alert System, which sends alerts to television and radio.

“In a wildland fire incident, the (siren) system has not been used, either in Maui or in other jurisdictions around the state,” Andaya said.

However, Andaya’s statements have not satisfied critics, who assert that a siren warning would have given them time to respond to the fires. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CBS News last week he has launched an investigation, handled by the state attorney general, into Maui county’s emergency response “before, during and after” the fire, including why the sirens didn’t go off.

8/18/23: Herman Andaya submitted his resignation Thursday, citing health reasons.


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