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Warning siren failures attributed to activation mix-ups, malfunctioning units

By Leila Fujimori

LAST UPDATED: 1:33 a.m. HST, Nov 3, 2012

This week's testing of the statewide outdoor siren warning system yielded no surprises and reflected some of the problems behind Saturday's tsunami warning siren failures.

There were delays in the sounding of sirens around the state during last weekend's tsunami warning and evacuations.

A test of warning sirens around the state is conducted at the beginning of each month. In Thursday's test, 32 sirens statewide out of 379 (roughly 10 percent) failed to sound or were not working properly.

Honolulu's Department of Emergency Management spokes­man John Cummings III said the number that typically do not activate during testing is 5 percent to 10 percent.

The bulk of Oahu's problems occurred because 89 of its 181 sirens had been converted to a new activation control system, but the city Department of Emergency Management activated the old system instead. As a result, about half the sirens on Oahu did not go off until about 15 minutes after the initial ones were activated.

As a solution, the city is developing a protocol for Hono­lulu Police Department's dispatch, working 24/7, to sound the first alarm for future short-notice-type events, said Cummings.

When a tsunami warning is issued, officials typically wait until three hours before arrival to sound the first sirens. Saturday was the first time there was such a short period before that three-hour window, said Cummings, whose institutional memory goes back 15 years.

While the state mans its Civil Defense operation 24/7, counties do not, and their personnel had to scramble to get in place.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially issued an alert saying an earthquake off British Columbia at 5:04 p.m. Hawaii time did not generate a Pacific-wide tsunami. But a short time later the center issued a warning that the 7.7-magnitude quake could trigger a tsunami in Hawaii.

State Civil Defense got the warning at 7:09 p.m. Maui, which was expected to get hit first, was informed first at 7:18 p.m., and the other counties got the warning within four minutes.

The initial wave was expected to arrive at 10:28 p.m., and the three-hour warning should have been given at 7:28 p.m., which left little lead time, said state Civil Defense spokes­woman Shelly Kuni­shige.

On Oahu, Emergency Management issued its initial warning on the old system at 7:55 p.m., and about half did not go off, and 15 minutes later activated the new system so most of the sirens went off at 8:10 p.m. But as many as 20 may not have been activated, Cummings said.

Hawaii County police reported 10 sirens failed during the tsunami warning.

Sirens in Keaukaha, a residential area along the Hilo coast, didn't go off until 9:10 p.m., a half-hour after sirens were reportedly used in Kona, a community leader told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Hawaii County Civil Defense did not return calls to the Star-Advertiser.

On Molokai the Kilo­hana siren has been broken. The state has replacement parts to fix it but is awaiting the proper handling of remains that were discovered when repair work began, said Kuni­shige.

Kunishige said each county has its own activation system, but the state will modernize and convert all to a more reliable cellular and satellite system beginning in January.

The cell is a backup to the satellite. The new system will enable the state to activate the sirens if the county is unable to, she said.

During Thursday's testing, 11 sirens malfunctioned on Oahu; five out of 73 on Maui; three of 54 on Kauai; and 13 of 71 on Hawaii island.

Anna Foust, emergency management officer for Maui Civil Defense, said the five out of 73 that malfunctioned Saturday were the same as on Thursday, and the county is waiting for the state to repair them.

In addition to the outdoor sirens, police in all counties Saturday warned people about the tsunami and evacuations using loudspeakers in addition to fly-bys that were conducted by Civil Air Patrol in remote areas where campers or boaters may have been.

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