By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
When the state and county Civil Defense agencies conducted their monthly check of the emergency notification system on Monday, many in coastal East Hawaii heard the sounds of silence instead of the sounds of sirens.
County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said that 18 sirens, primarily in Hilo and Puna, failed to activate during the test, which always occurs at 11:45 a.m. on the first government work day of the month. Oliveira said that troubleshooting procedures were “immediately initiated” at the Police Department’s radio shop in Hilo.
“The sirens are activated through the (police) radio system,” Oliveira said. “It appears that the repeater site up on Kulani Cone had a malfunction (Monday) which we remedied right away, and we did a test afterwards to confirm that the signal is working off the repeater site.”
That test did not include sound, only test tones, Oliveira said. Oliveira said he sent notifications of the problems and the troubleshooting measures to Mayor Billy Kenoi’s office and to state Civil Defense, the siren system’s owner.
Oliveira said that another siren test will be scheduled for later this month.
“We’re confident that the system will work based on that we corrected the error (Monday), and now, it’s a matter of scheduling that siren test with notification to the public, so we don’t create any anxiety and confusion,” he said.
Problems with the aging tsunami siren system have been an ongoing issue. The 18 sirens that failed on Monday was a larger number than the 13 sirens that malfunctioned on the night of Oct. 27, when a tsunami warning was issued following a magnitude-7.7 earthquake off Canada’s Pacific Coast. The warning was issued at 7:09 p.m., but sirens in some areas of East Hawaii didn’t sound until 9:10 p.m., two hours later. Some learned of the tsunami warning earlier via media and social networks. Twelve of the 13 sirens that failed during the tsunami warning were repaired or replaced, officials said.
Eight sirens failed in December’s monthly test. Then-Civil Defense Director Ben Fuata blamed the age of the sirens, saying they fall victim to the weather and insects. Fuata drew fire after the October malfunctions, and submitted his resignation in January, citing personal and family reasons for leaving the post. At that time Oliveira, who retired last year as fire chief, was tabbed for the post.
“Since then, we’ve been dealing with smaller numbers of sporadic malfunctions, and we’ve been correcting them as it comes up,” Oliveira said. “This is the first time since January that we’ve had this kind of numbers of sirens not working and have identified the likely contributing factor of the cause.”
Oliveira had to deal with a different problem on April 2, when a maintenance worker conducting system checks mistakenly tripped the alarm and caused all 71 of the island’s sirens to sound, a day after the statewide tests.
“We started getting inundated with phone calls. It caught us by surprise, as well,” Oliveira said at the time, and apologized for “any undue anxiety” experienced by the public.
The state is in the process of modernizing the coastal sirens, many of which are decades old. Plans could bring up to 15 new sirens to the island’s beach parks and residential areas within tsunami inundation zones, while another 36 new sirens are planned for areas outside the inundation zones, to be added sometime next year.
The new equipment, as well as the island’s existing sirens, will be connected to a new activation system that relies on cellular networks and satellites, rather than radio transmission.
Oliveira said that in the event of a siren malfunction during a future tsunami, other measures will be used to ensure the evacuation of coastal areas.
“If this was a real event, we would use other resources to make sure they (the public) are informed, including sending representatives door to door,” he said. “I know the public is probably frustrated and concerned about whether the system will work and whether they’ll get the information. We’re very aware of and appreciate the concern, and we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure we never jeopardize public safety, including using other resources.
“Obviously, the system needs to work, and we’re gonna make sure it does work.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.