Maui’s former top emergency personnel nonetheless insisted the sirens weren’t a viable response.

Before a fire swept through Lahaina, killing at least 114 people, Hawaii state emergency management personnel sent a “reminder” to their counterparts at the Maui Emergency Management Agency that the island’s all-hazard siren system “could be used” if needed.

The reminder was not a directive requiring that MEMA use the sirens, according to the state’s Joint Information Center, which the state recently set up to field questions about the disaster.

Indeed, despite the reminder, Maui’s top emergency official during the Aug. 8 blaze said that his agency did not consider the sirens as an option because they’re mainly used to warn against tsunamis.

Herman Andaya stands at the podium in the Mayors conference room in Wailuku
Herman Andaya said that sirens weren’t a viable option during the Lahaina wildfire because they’re mainly used for tsunamis. State officials reminded his agency that they were an option, however, before the Maui town was engulfed. (Hawaii News Now/2023)

That official, Herman Andaya, resigned Thursday as MEMA administrator for what county officials said were health reasons. Prior to his resignation, Andaya said that he had no regrets about the decision to not activate the sirens.

The JIC did not specify when Hawaii Emergency Management Agency personnel sent its reminder to MEMA that sirens could be used. In an emailed statement Friday, it merely said that the message was delivered prior to the blaze sweeping through Lahaina.

The JIC further said that it was MEMA’s call to decide whether using the sirens was warranted.

“Maui County would set the policies and procedures for how their sirens are activated and who is authorized to do so,” the JIC stated.

Andaya earlier this week said that he did not consider the sirens to be a viable tool in responding to the fire. They might have driven many people mauka, or upland, into the path of the blaze because they would have associated the warnings with a tsunami, he said.

Nonetheless, 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.”

MEMA instead opted on Aug. 8 to activate warnings through people’s cell phones – but many survivors said they received no warnings at all and didn’t realize they were in danger until the fire was upon them.

Andaya also opted to remain on Oahu on Aug. 8 as wildfires spread across Maui, although county officials said that he remained in constant contact with emergency personnel on the Valley Isle.

Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra contributed to this report.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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