The Maui Emergency Management Agency didn’t see the sirens as a viable tool to warn Lahaina’s people about the incoming blaze.

The leader of the Maui Emergency Management Agency is defending his department’s decision not to activate a siren network to warn people last week that a fast-moving fire was descending upon Lahaina.

Called an “all-hazard” system, the sirens are intended to be used for a variety of natural and human-caused events, including fires, Maui’s own website states. The four sirens in the Lahaina area are part of what Hawaii calls the “largest single integrated outdoor siren warning system for public safety in the world.”

But in practice, the system is used mainly for tsunami warnings, MEMA Administrator Herman Andaya said, and the Maui Emergency Management Agency didn’t consider them, as Civil Beat reported.

Andaya elaborated on that decision in a Tuesday interview. “We would not use sirens in a case like this,” he said. “That’s not what we normally would do. We just don’t use sirens for fires.”

Hawaii’s siren system is solar-based and can be activated when the power is out. Maui sent emergency alerts that are reliant on cell towers and electricity, which were out. (Sara Lin/Civil Beat)

Officials instead opted to activate warnings through people’s cell phones, Andaya said. At least some residents received cellphone notifications to evacuate after 4 p.m., according to the New York Times, but many did not. Electrical power and cell service was down in much of the area last Tuesday when the fires sparked and spread.

The sirens are solar-powered and can sound even when electricity is down through a satellite data signal.

In the end, many residents and visitors said they fled Lahaina after seeing or smelling smoke coming their way. But with traffic backups and multiple road closures caused by downed power lines, some died in their cars as they tried to escape. Others pushed through smoke and flames to jump over a sea wall and into the ocean. There, they endured hours of punishing winds and smoke and watched the town burn until the Coast Guard came to rescue them. 

In Andaya’s view, the usefulness of the sirens is limited.

“It wouldn’t have helped if we had sounded the sirens,” he said.

More than 100 people have been confirmed dead, with the death toll expected to rise as specialized crews search through the rubble for remains. Thousands of people have lost their homes and businesses. The county’s response to the crisis is under review by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office.

Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview on Monday that he’s not certain sirens would’ve made a difference.

“This thing was big enough and hot enough to make its own weather, but I’m not sure that, with a wall of flames moving at 40 or 50 miles an hour that sounding a siren would’ve provided the level of advance warning that I think people think,” Weintraub said. 

“We will be looking at as much data as we can get our hands on to figure out how this happened and what we could’ve done that would have improved our response and made people safe. Wildfires are going to be a bigger part of the threat picture here in Hawaii in the future.”

Messages Sent Were Not Received By All

The state’s website says the sirens blow at 121 decibels – an “uncomfortable” level comparable to a jet plane taking off, according to the American Academy of Audiology. Residents are familiar with the sounds due to monthly tests of the system.

But Andaya suggested people indoors might not have been able to hear it, particularly with the intense winds that were blowing up to 80 miles per hour.

“It’s an outdoor siren,” he said. “So if you’re in your home and watching TV, or whatever the case may be, you may not hear a siren.”

Using the sirens, which the public tends to associate with tsunamis, could also “send the wrong message to the public,” Andaya said.

“What do you do if a siren sounds? You’d think, oh, I need to go mauka, which is where we don’t want them to go to,” he said, given that the flames and winds were moving from the mountainside toward the ocean.

The red dots show the locations of the state's emergency alert sirens in Lahaina. (
The red dots show the locations of the state’s emergency alert sirens in Lahaina. (

According to Andaya, the most effective means of sending out an emergency notification, in this case, was a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, and the Emergency Alert System, or EAS. Evacuation notices were pushed out through both, he said, although he couldn’t remember at what times.

The WEA system sends sound and text warnings to compatible cell phones. The EAS blares warnings via broadcasters on TV and radio. But the systems rely on cell towers and electricity, respectively. If those are out, the message won’t be delivered.

“We didn’t even know that the power was necessarily down,” he said. “We do know that there were people who did receive the alert and notifications. We do know that many people were able to evacuate as a result.”

Some cell towers have backup generators, so Andaya said he believed they were still operational.

Herman Andaya, administrator Maui Emergency Management Agency, is seen in a screenshot from a County of Maui Facebook video. (Maui County/Facebook)
Herman Andaya, administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said his agency sent out evacuation notices via cell phones. But with service disrupted, many didn’t receive the warning. (Maui County/Facebook/2021)

The county also sent what’s called MEMA alerts through a county system that sends emails, delivers text messages and calls landlines, Andaya said.

“We just followed what we normally do, which is we put out a WEA and EAS,” he said. “If you check the other Hawaii jurisdictions throughout the state, none to my knowledge has used sirens for fires.”

Andaya was on Oahu last Tuesday when the fire took over Lahaina. In his absence, Paul Coe, MEMA’s plans and operations officer, was in charge, Andaya said.

Coe has worked for MEMA since 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. Previously he spent more than two decades with the fire department in Tucson, Arizona, ending his career there as a captain. He has a degree in fire services administration from Arizona State University, his profile says.

Asked if he or his agency would do anything differently, Andaya said no.

“We used the best system there was,” he said. “We feel with the resources we had available, this is the best response we could’ve done.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, both Andaya and Gov. Josh Green declined to say whether sirens would be considered for fires in the future. Both said agencies will be reviewing their practices in light of the Lahaina catastrophe. Green noted when he first moved to Hawaii, people told him the sirens signified tsunamis.

“We will find best practices, and give updated information,” Green said. “There are going to be a lot of large changes that we hope to do.”

Those changes will likely include moving power lines underground and increasing the state’s satellite capacity, the governor said.

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