A small team did their best to juggle a wave of calls and radio transmissions simultaneously. Despite their best efforts, many callers’ questions went unanswered.  

The caller was starting to panic. 

“We’re trapped in a convoy of cars, and there’s smoke all around us,” the man, who identified himself as Isaiah, told the Maui 911 operator. 

It was just after 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 8, and he was in a car, stuck on Aki Street in Lahaina. It was just a few blocks from the town’s central artery, Lahainaluna Road, but it might as well have been miles. 

Traffic was backed up. One escape route was blocked by a downed tree. Another by a locked gate. An electrical wire was threatening the only way out. 

The dispatcher said she’d let the fire department know. But as the flames surrounded his car, the air inside heating up, it became clear Isaiah would have to save himself. 

“I’m sorry,” the dispatcher said. “I’m trying to get help over to you.” 

Maui Police Department 911 Dispatcher call center (Hawaii News Now/2022)
Maui’s 911 dispatchers are severely understaffed and, by many accounts, underpaid. They also never received specific training to help people trapped by wildfires. (Hawaii News Now/2022)

On the day Maui burned, a tiny team of emergency dispatchers had an impossible task.

As thousands of calls streamed in from Lahaina, Upcountry and Kihei, dispatchers worked as quickly as they could to keep callers calm, collect information about their situation and direct them to safety, a review of 911 call audio shows. 

The audio reveals moments that may have saved lives. One dispatcher coaxed a senior citizen out of the retirement home where she was stranded. She stayed on the line until the caller was able to hitch a ride with someone who had a car. On another call, the dispatcher convinced a resident to evacuate her home, even though it meant leaving a frightened pet behind. 

But the calls also lay bare painful moments in which dispatchers, despite their best intentions, found themselves unable to help those who dialed 911. In call after call, frantic people reached out with more questions than dispatchers had answers for. 

August 10, 2023, photographs two days after the fire which destroyed Lahaina town. (Courtesy of the DLNR)
Maui dispatchers were inundated with calls from people who said they were stuck, trapped or didn’t know what to do. Generally, dispatchers told them to “evacuate.” (Courtesy of the DLNR)

“There’s fires all around us,” one caller said around 4:40 p.m. “Do we stay in this parking garage?” 

“No, don’t stay in a parking garage,” the dispatcher said, without offering alternatives. “We’re just asking everybody to be patient. We’re trying our best. I don’t know what to tell you. You’re stuck there. We’re trying to fight a fire here, OK?”

Moments later, another call came in from Aki Street. 

“The fire is all over already,” the distressed woman said, as a scream could be heard in the background. “We just can’t get out. There’s no way out.” 

“All I can tell you is to get out of that area,” the dispatcher said. “They’re working on it.” 

Until a few years ago, there were no industry standards written for dispatchers to assist callers who were trapped by wildfires. Such instructions were written, though, after the deadly Tubbs fire in California in 2017 and are now used across the country and the world. 

But Maui doesn’t have that protocol. None of Hawaii’s county dispatchers do.  

Maui Police Department 911 Dispatcher call center (Hawaii News Now/2022)
In a routine structure fire, dispatchers would tell callers that help is on the way. During the fire that consumed Lahaina, there were not enough resources to dispatch to every person in need of rescue. (Hawaii News Now/2022)

Even if they did, with calls coming in every 28 seconds on average between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Maui’s dispatchers were outmatched. There were only eight dispatchers working the night of the fire. Eight people to take more than 4,200 calls. They started the day with four. 

The call recordings also capture the limitations of the 911 system when there are no first responders on hand to dispatch to the locations of callers in need.

The Maui Police Department said it had only 13 officers in the area busy trying to move traffic out of town and evacuate neighborhoods. Maui firefighters were outgunned trying to put out a blaze that burned through a tinderbox of dry grasses and spread with the force of hurricane-force winds, all with water hydrants that were losing pressure as pipelines melted. 

At times, dispatchers had to stop themselves from reciting the classic refrain: Help is on the way. They seemed to know it wouldn’t be true. 

“I just woke up and my whole place is on fire,” a caller named Michael said just after 4:30 p.m. 

“Just go makai. Just get away … We are trying to get –” the dispatcher began. But she stopped herself and sighed. “We are trying, sir.”

(Photo: Phila.gov)

With firefighters occupied, dispatchers repeatedly tried to empower callers to make decisions to save their own lives. 

“There are no evacuation orders for that area yet,” one dispatcher told a caller in Lahaina just after 4 p.m. “But if you feel in danger, just leave. Don’t wait for us to tell you to leave.” 

Maui police recently released the two hours of audio – captured between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – in response to media requests. The department is expected to release additional audio from Aug. 8 in the coming days and weeks. 

In the end, Isaiah appears to have made it to safety, according to the audio. He reported being able to see the ocean beyond Front Street. There is no one by that name on the list of the dead.

One hundred others were not as fortunate. 

‘There Were No Instructions To Help Them’

KT McNulty can relate to Maui’s dispatchers. 

She was in their shoes the night of the notorious Tubbs fire in 2017, one of the most lethal wildfires in California history. Twenty-two people died. 

The night started like any other. Then reports of smoke started coming in. Then sightings of flames. 

A supervisor at the time, McNulty had been trained to respond to calls about fires. But the protocols were written with traditional structure fires in mind. Callers were told to escape their houses and run to a safe distance until firefighters arrived.

The Tubbs fire was a different beast entirely. It rapidly spread from wilderness land to neighborhoods, trapping people in place. The California dispatchers, like their counterparts in Maui several years later, didn’t have a script for that scenario. 

“Before, all you could really tell them to do was evacuate, but there was nothing to tell them if evacuation was not an option,” McNulty said in an interview. “There were no instructions to help them.”

KT McNulty, a former supervisor for the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority (REDCOM) in Santa Rosa, California was lauded for her performance during the 2017 Tubbs fire. (Kent Porter/Courtesy of The Press Democrat/2019)
KT McNulty, a former supervisor for the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority (REDCOM) in Santa Rosa, California was lauded for her performance during the 2017 Tubbs fire. She is now the regional director for American Medical Response. (Kent Porter/Courtesy of The Press Democrat/2019)

Amid “pure chaos,” McNulty improvised. She spoke to one woman who asked if she should get in a pool. McNulty said yes, and passed the suggestion along to other callers. 

Grasping at straws, McNulty and her team brainstormed other solutions for callers. Could they go somewhere the flames had already burned? If trees were blocking an escape route, could they find a chainsaw? If all else fails, could they dig themselves into a ditch in the dirt? 

McNulty’s quick-thinking questions would later become part of a new protocol written by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch which named McNulty Dispatcher of the Year in 2019 for her performance during the Tubbs fire. 

The new protocol is now used in 700 jurisdictions across the country and abroad, according to Mike Thompson, who leads the fire research division of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

“One of those instructions may just be enough to save someone’s life,” Thompson said. 

Davlynn Racadio, a supervising dispatcher on Maui who has worked in emergency communications for more than 35 years, said Maui will look into the program. 

After the Tubbs fire, McNulty said her agency made other changes too. REDCOM installed a 20-foot TV screen in the dispatch center to monitor the weather, law enforcement activity, news reports and other updates. 

REDCOM also implemented Fire Scout, a program that uses 360-degree cameras with artificial intelligence software trained to recognize fire and smoke. A video feed from the cameras is beamed into REDCOM’s information hub. The utility PG&E, which has been blamed for causing several wildfires in California, is using the technology too, via hundreds of cameras across the state.

“One of those instructions may just be enough to save someone’s life.”

Mike Thompson, International Academies of Emergency Dispatch

In general, REDCOM is also taking red flag warnings more seriously, McNulty said.

“It used to be: Just for your information, it’s red flag this weekend,” she said. 

“But now we have stakeholder meetings involving law enforcement, all the fire agencies, all the EMS, county officials. Everyone is in the same meeting learning the same information and being prepared for what’s coming.” 

That includes adding staff to fire stations and dispatcher centers, she said, “just based on the warning alone.” 

“We’re way more proactive about fire weather now,” she said. 

Thompson, a retired fire battalion chief, said emergency responders need to adapt to the changing fire landscape. 

“If you go back to even prior to 2017, people were saying in the business that we’re seeing fire behavior that we have never before,” he said. “What’s going on by and large in the industry is there are extreme levels of drought … When you have this combination of extremely dry fuel and high wind events, it’s a recipe for disaster.” 

Multitasking To The Max

Even if Maui’s dispatchers had been equipped with wildfire-specific training, their ability to help still would have been limited. 

The department has had a staffing crisis for years, and recently it’s only gotten worse. In February 2022, MPD had a 52% vacancy rate among dispatchers, Hawaii News Now reported. 

Today, the vacancy rate is 70%, with only 12 of its 39 dispatcher seats filled, according to MPD. That means on any given day, fewer than a dozen people are responsible for fire, police and medical calls for Maui, Lanai and Molokai. 

As of 2019, MPD took an average of more than 350 emergency calls per day, according to the department’s most recent annual report. That’s one call every four minutes, on average. And even during an active disaster like the wildfires, other calls stream in. 

As Lahaina burned, dispatchers took reports of other incidents, including an intoxicated person adrift in Lahaina harbor and a fallen tree in the road in Kihei.

While managing ringing phones, dispatchers have additional critical responsibilities. On Maui, the same people who answer 911 calls are also tasked with listening to radio chatter from other first responders and emergency management officials about conditions on the ground. 

Oftentimes, they literally do both at the same time. 

“Multitasking is a huge, huge thing there,”  Tanya Kuailani, a former Maui dispatcher, said in an interview. “One ear you have your caller, and one ear you have your officer.”

In ideal conditions, there would be a designated person to take calls from officers, but if that person is already occupied, Kuailani said, “you have to take it.” 

In the 911 call audio, dialogue via radio can be heard in the background. Listening carefully to the needs of those first responders is essential because they may need help getting resources. 

“If the fire department needs another helicopter and they don’t have anybody available to call, we have the pleasure,” said Racadio, the Maui dispatch supervisor. 

The job of a dispatcher is designed to facilitate information-sharing in two directions. Dispatchers use the most current information they’ve collected from emergency officials to help other callers out of harm’s way. And in turn, callers provide firsthand accounts of what’s happening on the ground, which is helpful for first responders. 

Maui Police Department 911 Dispatcher call center (MPD/2023)
Maui dispatchers have to listen to 911 calls and radio chatter from other first responders simultaneously. It can quickly get overwhelming. (Maui Police Department/2023)

Juggling so much, though, means that some information falls through the cracks. 

Several times, dispatchers appeared unaware of whether certain areas were under evacuation orders. When people called to ask if their neighborhood was supposed to be evacuated, dispatchers gave vague answers.

“Yes, if you believe so, ma’am, please do,” one dispatcher said to one such caller. “If you are concerned and you think it’s near you, just evacuate.” 

(Photo: Dare County, North Carolina)

On the flip side, dispatchers failed, at times, to pick up on the importance of what callers were telling them. 

Several callers tried to impress upon the dispatchers that traffic on Front Street was at a complete standstill. In response, dispatchers did not say they would relay that message to police, who could possibly relieve the congestion. Instead, several dispatchers seemed to interpret those calls as complaints about an inconvenience and quickly moved on to other calls. 

“I’m with my family, I have a 4-year-old in the car, and we are stuck on Front Street,” one caller said. 

“There is a traffic jam right now, it’s gonna be moving, but it’s really slowly,” the dispatcher said. “We’re asking that you guys be patient. We’re trying our best that we can, OK?”

(Photo of a dispatcher: Phila.gov)

“We are not moving at all,” the caller countered. 

The dispatcher responded sternly. 

“Ma’am, ma’am. Be patient, OK? Be patient with the traffic, alright? Everybody is trying to get out of Lahaina. Thank you very much,” the dispatcher said before cutting off the call. 

How To Be An Effective 911 Caller

– Only call with real emergencies.
– Speak clearly and get to the point.
– Answer the questions the dispatcher asks you.
– Describe what you see. 
– Be specific about your location. If there are no street signs around, point out nearby landmarks.
– Tell them what you need.

These kinds of reactions are not unusual for dispatchers who grow accustomed to a glut of non-urgent calls, Thompson said. But when dispatchers are so squeezed that they don’t have the capacity to tell the difference between a frivolous call and a legitimate one, it can end badly.

“Telecommunicators are human beings too,” Thompson said. 

First Responders, Paid As Clerks

Despite the challenges, Kuailani loved her job as a Maui emergency dispatcher. It was fulfilling to be able to help callers, and she found it exhilarating to watch over other first responders.

But the mother of three said she had to quit in 2021 after just a year on the job. Workers without seniority had to put in 12-hour overnight shifts, she said. After five days of working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., weekends consisted of one day to recuperate and one day to live her life, Kuailani said. 

“It was sometimes overwhelming. People get really, really tired, and really, really burned out,” she said. “It does get pretty nuts. I mean, I wouldn’t want somebody there that couldn’t function.” 

The salaries were little incentive to stick around. Entry-level pay for emergency dispatchers started around $45,000 as of 2022, according to county salary data.

“I feel like the pay isn’t worth the job you’re doing,” Kuailani said. “We are the first first responders.” 

But that’s not how the government classifies them. Instead, dispatchers – who, at least on Maui, are mostly women – are designated as clerks. Legislation passed the Hawaii House of Representatives earlier this year to allow dispatchers to collectively bargain as their own distinct group, but the legislation died in the Senate. 

Maui Police Department 911 Dispatcher call center (MPD/2023)
Maui Police Department 911 Dispatcher call center (MPD/2023)

The Maui Police Department said it is now working with Maui County council member Yuki Lei Sugimura to make the change, which should allow for salary increases, according to Maui Police spokeswoman Alana Pico. 

“To be honest with you, I’m a law enforcement officer, and I could not do that job,” Maui Police Capt. Joy Medeiros said in an interview. “I cannot even quantify the gratitude that I have for the value of what they do. They truly are lifelines.”

Thompson agreed. But he also hopes the county reflects on the Lahaina fire and asks the important question: What can we do better next time? 

“What does everybody do when something goes wrong? You pick up a phone and call 911,” he said. “And so you have to be able to make that make that system work for you.” 

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

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