HI-EMA clarifies that sirens can be used to warn of fire

A review of outdoor warning siren protocols following the Lahaina fire disaster has led the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to reiterate that fire is indeed one of the hazards that can prompt siren activation.

The agency on Wednesday released a summary of discussions with its emergency management partners in the wake of the Aug. 8 fire and clarified that the statewide network of sirens is an all-hazards system that, when sounded, means “seek more information.”


The meaning and use of the system came into question after sirens in Lahaina were not activated to warn residents about the wind-driven inferno that killed as many as 97 people and destroyed more than 2, 000 structures, most of them homes.

“It was clear that there were differing opinions about what the sirens mean and when to use them, even from elected leaders, ” said Adam Weintraub, HI-EMA spokesperson.

The Lahaina disaster led to the resignation of then-Maui Emergency Management Administrator Herman Andaya and was one of the reasons Gov. Josh Green ordered a formal review into the disaster response by the state attorney general’s office.

Following the fire and “in the interest of public clarity, ” according to HI-EMA, it consulted with leaders of its emergency management partners around the state and produced a summary of major hazards and a brief guide to siren use, covering such things as which organizations have primary and secondary responsibility for activating alert systems and factors to consider in making the decision.

“These protocols haven’t changed, “

HI-EMA Administrator James Barros said in a news release. “The sirens are an all-hazard alert system, and the state and county emergency plans address how to use all our alert and warning tools.”

Decisions during a hazard sometimes have to be made in a very short time, Barros added.

For fires, according to HI-EMA’s review, the priority is given to alert systems that send warnings out over radio and television and cellphones.

But when activating the sirens, consideration must be given to whether immediate action such as evacuation or shelter-in-place—is required of the public or whether warning the public exceeds the capability of first responders in the field.

In addition, the number of sirens available and estimated time to impact must also be considered.

County fire departments are the informing agency, with the mayors having the authority and the county emergency operations centers having the primary responsibility for siren activation and HI-EMA secondary responsibility, the review said.

Other hazards covered in the newly released summary include tsunamis, distant and local ; hurricanes ; dam failure and flash flooding ; volcanic eruption ; and hazardous material exposure.

“We’re always looking to improve our response to emergencies, and the review of the Maui fire response may lead to changes, ” Barros said. “But for now it’s important that Hawaii’s residents know that the sirens are an alert system that means ‘seek more information.’”

The siren network dates back to World War II and contains at least 410 warning sirens, many of them located by the ocean, although there are plenty of them found in mauka areas.

After the Lahaina fire, Andaya defended his actions, saying the warning sirens are primarily used for tsunamis, not for brush fires, and because the public is trained to seek higher ground when a siren goes off.

Andaya said he was worried that people would have moved mauka and into the ferocious fire that night.

In answer to a flurry of questions from the media, Andaya said counties in Hawaii don’t use the sirens for brush fires. “It is our practice to use the most effective means of conveying an emergency to the public during a wildland fire, ” he said.

Andaya said the decision was made to alert the public through text messages and through radio and television only. But the power was out for most of the day, and many residents said they were never warned.

At the same news conference, Green said that when he moved to Hawaii and lived on the coast of the Big Island, people told him that a siren refers to a tsunami.

In any case, Green said the attorney general’s review would, among other things, look at best practices for how to warn people.

Harry Kim, a former Hawaii island mayor and veteran civil defense administrator, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he agrees with HI-EMA’s review and the conclusion that fire is one of the hazards that can trigger the use of sirens.

But Kim said he could think of only one time he activated a siren for a fire during his 24 years as chief of Big Island civil defense, during a large blaze in Puako.

The outdoor sirens, he said, are only a small but important part of a system needed to warn the public. And it basically means only one thing : seek more information by tuning in to radio or cable television stations.

Officials said more sirens for dangerous wildfires will likely be heard across the state in the years to come as the climate changes and parched landscapes with highly flammable grasses become more common.

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