By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
All 71 of Hawaii Island’s tsunami emergency warning sirens sounded shortly before noon Tuesday after a maintenance worker mistakenly tripped the alarm.
“It wasn’t something our office had planned for,” said Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira. “It wasn’t anticipated, and our office had as much notification as everybody else. It was human error. We just heard it, and started working to shut it down. We started getting inundated with phone calls. It caught us by surprise, as well. We apologize for any undue anxiety it caused the public.”
Technicians were busy conducting system checks as part of their regular procedures following the systemwide tests conducted on the first of each month — which fell on Monday this month — when a worker accidentally set off the sirens.
“They were in the midst of coordinating their system checks with the police dispatch center when they inadvertently set off the sirens,” Oliveira said. “It was an islandwide activation.”
The timing of the incident highlights a particular problem surrounding the monthly tests — namely, that many people don’t believe the sirens are real when they sound on or near the first of the month. Every resident and business owner the Tribune-Herald spoke with near Bayfront in Hilo said Tuesday afternoon that they never thought to evacuate the inundation zones, believing Tuesday’s sirens to be part of the first-of-the-month testing schedule.
“I didn’t think it was a tsunami,” said Allen Pom, who sat out front of his temporary storefront on Mamo Street selling He Hi Au and Homesteady shirts for Merrie Monarch week. “We just thought it was the tests.”
“Yeah,” added partner Kanani Kumunalu, “I thought they were doing it again, because people thought yesterday’s was an April Fool’s.”
Workers at Naung Mai Thai Kitchen on Kilauea Avenue and the neighboring Pho Viet Vietnamese Restaurant said they, too, were unfazed by the siren.
Oliveira said that such reactions gave him conflicting feelings.
“On the one hand, I guess I’m pleased to hear that people were understanding and that it (the false alarm) didn’t create any unnecessary anxiety,” he said. “… But, in the end, I’m hoping we don’t lose the trust and confidence of the people in the system. It’s an unfortunate thing with this aging technology, that a lot of it is in need of updating and replacement. We hope to have a system soon that works 100 percent of the time.”
Hawaii Island residents who want to ensure that they have better access to up-to-date information may sign up for alerts at http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/civil-defense/. Click on the links that read “Sign Up For Civil Defense Alerts and Notifications” or “Sign up for Hawaii County Police Department Email and Text Alerts.”
When the sirens are activated, Oliveira recommended that residents quickly turn on a radio or television to receive up-to-date information.
“In an actual emergency, the sirens are an indicator for people to turn on their radios to get further instructions,” he said.
Oliveira added that he is currently awaiting an update on plans for modernization work on the island’s system of sirens.
“The Department of Accounting and General Services is in the process of scheduling the work for the siren retrofits, upgrades and additions, and we’re waiting on tentative work schedule to come down to our office,” he said.
The plans could bring up to 15 new sirens to the island’s beach parks and residential areas within the tsunami inundation zones. Another 36 new sirens are planned for areas outside the tsunami zones, to be added sometime in 2014.
The new equipment, as well as the island’s existing sirents, will be connected to a new activation system that relies on cellular networks and satellites, rather than radio transmission. The project will help eliminate failing sirens, which have long plagued the system and which created a headache for civil defense workers during an Oct. 27 tsunami warning.
Thirteen sirens malfunctioned during that incident, but have since been repaired.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.