Roughly three out of every four sirens works at any given time, officials said.

At least eight of the state’s emergency sirens are currently not working due to vandalism or suspected vandalism, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. 

And while sirens can break or malfunction for a variety of reasons, vandals and thieves who target the equipment for batteries, copper and other valuable components pose an expensive problem for the state, agency spokesman Adam Weintraub said. 

Sirens, which cost just under $100,000 each, are purchased using federal funding. But when they break, money to fix them comes out of the state’s budget — and that doesn’t always cover it. 

Sirens can break or malfunction for a variety of reasons, including vandalism. Of the state’s 408 sirens, around 75-80% are functional at any given time, said Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesman Adam Weintraub. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

Hawaii receives about $2 million a year from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for operational improvements, Weintraub said. Some of that money goes to pay the salaries of siren maintenance workers, but it doesn’t go to things like replacement parts. 

Funding for the purchase of new sirens comes from a combination of local, state and federal funding, depending on each circumstance, he said.

The state plans to spend about $5 million in capital improvement funds over the next two years on “siren maintenance and modernization,” according to the state Department of Defense budget. 

This includes fixing broken sirens and upgrading them with newer technology, Weintraub said.

Officials are also looking at ways to better protect sirens from vandals. One strategy is moving control boxes, which are often targeted by thieves, higher up on the poles. 

Of the state’s 408 sirens, about 75% to 80% are functional at any given time, Weintraub said.

Sirens can stop working for a number of reasons, including old age or getting struck by lightning. One broke when it was hit by a drunk driver, he said.

But in some areas, especially on Oahu and the Big Island, vandalism is a recurring concern.

Sirens are one piece of a three-part warning system that includes emergency programming on broadcast and radio channels and cellphone alerts. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

One siren in West Oahu has been vandalized at least four times in the past two years, he said, though he declined to specify which one. There are 184 sirens on Oahu. 

The one that’s repeatedly tampered with now requires $40,000 to be fixed. 

“Vandalism can be tremendously expensive to repair,” Weintraub said. “This happens on the regular, I’m afraid.” 

Emergency warning systems have come under scrutiny since the Maui Emergency Management Agency chose not to sound sirens before the deadly Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina. The agency’s administrator, Herman Andaya, later resigned.  

The state tests all of its sirens on the first of every month, and October’s test revealed at least two sirens on Maui that weren’t working — one in Wailuku and one on the east side.

There are 80 sirens in Maui County. Weintraub said a full report of the siren test results will be available this week. 

The sirens are one piece of a three-part warning system that includes emergency interruptions to broadcast TV, cable, radio and satellite radio as well as cellphone alerts.

But on the day of the Lahaina fires, parts of West Maui were without power or cell service, causing many residents to miss warnings sent to cellphones, broadcast stations and landlines.

Wientraub said during next year’s legislative session, he expects officials will start to look at not only how to upgrade the state’s siren system with newer technology but also how to improve the warning system overall. 

“There will be a robust discussion going into the next funding cycle as far as, do we need to reexamine our assumptions about what an alert warning system for the state of Hawaii should look like?” he said. 

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