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Maui's top emergency official is out after failing to sound sirens as fires approached

Herman Andaya, administrator of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, had defended his decision not to use the sirens.
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Maui's top emergency management official resigned Thursday, one day after he defended his decision not to sound warning sirens as wildfires swept across the island.

The resignation of Herman Andaya, the administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, was effective immediately, a county spokesperson said.

Andaya, citing health reasons, submitted his resignation "effective immediately," and Mayor Richard Bissen accepted, Maui County said in a statement Thursday.

“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Bissen said.

A statement from the Hawaii Emergency Management agency on Saturday said Maui County was issued a reminder that sirens could be used before the wildfire devastated the area and there was no directive was issued regarding siren activation.

“HI-EMA relied upon Maui County, which had direct communication with first responders and, as the local agency, had the best awareness of the rapidly changing situation. Maui County would set the policies and procedures for how their sirens are activated and who is authorized to do so," the statement said."

The statement continued, "HI-EMA personnel are in regular communication with their counterparts at the county Emergency Operations Centers when they are activated. Before the major fire swept through Lahaina a reminder was given that the sirens could be used. No “directive” was issued by HI-EMA regarding siren activation."

A wildfire devastated the historic West Maui town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, killing more than 100 people and destroying thousands of buildings, many of them residential.

Residents have described fleeing the area with little more than what they could grab — and with no way to receive emergency alerts sent to mobile devices, because the power had been out for many since early that morning.

Andaya said he decided not to sound the sirens as the fire approached, as he feared coastal residents would have fled inland, toward the flames.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” he said, noting that sirens are used primarily for tsunamis.

Herman Andaya, Maui County Emergency Management Agency Administrator speaks to the media in Maui, Hawaii, on Aug. 16, 2023.
Herman Andaya, administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, speaks to the media in Maui, Hawaii, on Wednesday.KHNL

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” Andaya said, using a word meaning “to the mountainside.” 

“And if that’s the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” he said.

Andaya said the agency's protocol to warn of brushfires had been to use other alert systems that send messages to cellphones and through television and radio.

Records show Andaya has downplayed the use of sirens, having repeatedly described them as a “last resort” in recent years. 

At a 2020 meeting, as he was reporting that only 58 of the island’s more than 70 sirens worked during the most recent monthly test, he said that the process to fix them was slow and that there were other ways to notify the public during emergencies.

A fire official responded that they were still important during major emergencies, when power and phones might be down.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to diminish the value of sirens,” Andaya said. “I totally agree with you, chief, that the sirens are important.”