A Maui official has defended the decision not to activate sirens during last week’s deadly wildfires, as questions arose about the county’s emergency response and potential ways more lives could have been saved.
Herman Andaya, Administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, explained that the standard procedure is to use coastal sirens only for tsunami warnings, not for wildfires. Andaya expressed concerns that sounding the sirens could have led evacuees straight into the path of the flames, as the sirens signal people to seek higher ground.
Andaya also mentioned that the sirens would likely not have been audible over the sound of strong winds and indoors where people were using air conditioners. Additionally, there were no sirens on the mountainside where the fire was spreading, making it difficult to alert people there.
When asked during a press briefing whether he regretted not using the sirens, Andaya stated that he did not.
Andaya explained, “Other counties in Hawaii will tell you that sirens haven’t been used for brush fires. Our practice is to use the most effective methods for conveying emergency messages to the public.” He noted that the county’s protocol involves the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WPA) for text alerts and the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for broadcasting messages on television and radio.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green also supported the decision, suggesting that if the sirens had gone off, people might have thought a tsunami was imminent. He remarked, “That was the mentality.”
During the August 8th wildfires, some survivors who fled the flames reported a lack of cell service and power, resulting in them not receiving any alerts.
As of Wednesday evening, officials confirmed 111 deaths in the Maui County wildfires, with only 38% of the affected area searched. Many individuals are still reported as missing.
Governor Green outlined plans for changes going forward, aiming to identify best practices. He mentioned intentions to address safety concerns by placing power lines underground and enhancing satellite capacity across the state. The extreme heat and rapid fire spread severely damaged existing infrastructure, posing significant challenges.