Panel zeroes in on timelier alerts in emergencies
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
The state is standing behind its decision not to activate civil defense alarms after the Oct. 15 Big Island earthquakes and blackout, but a committee of government, media and telecommunications representatives is poised to offer recommendations on how to keep the public better informed in future emergencies.
State and O'ahu civil defense officials received many complaints after residents statewide had to wait 49 minutes before they had official word that the 6.7 and 6.5 magnitude earthquakes off the Big Island's Kona coast had not generated a tsunami.
A draft report from the Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee calls the Oct. 15 events "a wake-up call ... that the current communications system can be improved."
Committee members have until Friday to offer comments on the report before it is put into final form.
As it stands, the committee's top priority appears to be updating the state's Emergency Alert System plan to get information out faster.
Citizens dismayed at the lack of information immediately after the temblors agree that timely information is of utmost importance.
"The clearest, most important thing is someone needs to be on duty to be able to give information to citizens very quickly," said Waikiki resident Richard Port.
On O'ahu, where most residents found themselves without electricity and radio stations had little or no staff at work on a Sunday morning, many, including Port, suggested that the sirens should have sounded so that people would know to turn on the radio.
However, the committee determined, "Sounding the alarm in this case would have created confusion and panic. It is important that Civil Defense not lose the trust of the people by sounding the alarm when there is no emergency."
Bridget Scott, an administrative secretary at The Queen's Medical Center, had concerns about how the word went out, but she agrees that the sirens would have been too much. "I think that's only for serious evacuation needs," she said.
However, she agrees with the committee's recommendation that the state look into using the Emergency Alert System to break into television and radio programs, similar to what is done during hazardous weather conditions.
That would go a long way to calm people, she said, even if all the message says is that there was an event and more information would be coming.
"When it pops on the TV screen, you think, 'OK, good. Now I know what's going on,' and you go on with your life," she said.
Makiki resident Al Fink suggested that people might not know what to do if sirens went off.
"I don't think the tourists, in general, and even residents of Hawai'i would really know what to do in the event of a tsunami," he said.
One of the committee's recommendations would address that concern, since people need to have their own plans because government workers would not be able to respond to every resident and visitor at once.
The state, in conjunction with the media, plans to launch a new public service announcement campaign, and will tie an educational component into the monthly emergency broadcast/siren test.
Port said the most important thing is to make sure people have information fast enough to use it. "Some effort has to be made to give people as much time as possible to do whatever is necessary," he said. "If that means to get away from the shore, people need to be able to do that."
Another committee recommendation involves looking into the feasibility of broadcasting alerts through mobile phone text messages, since text messaging was more reliable than regular voice service during the O'ahu blackout. One possible problem is whether it would violate customer confidentiality policies.
Scott thinks that cell-phone users should be given the opportunity to opt out when they sign or renew a contract.
Port thinks it's a good idea to look into text messaging, even though not everyone uses it. "Certainly that's the future and that certainly should be done," he said.
FACTS FROM THE REPORT
• 80 percent of media stations statewide were off the air immediately.
• Civil Defense officials and the radio stations themselves were confused about who was designated for emergency broadcasts.
• KITV-4 was operational but its O'ahu transmitter was down. They were able to use their Hilo, Hawai'i, transmitter and uplink video to a satellite so it could be viewed on the Mainland.
• KHNL-8 was off the air, but its sister station, KFVE-5, remained on air the entire day.
• KHON-2 could only broadcast on the Neighbor Islands.
• Oceanic Time Warner Cable's operational centers were active, but customers could not receive services because they did not have the backup power to transmit a signal.
• KSSK had a trained operator in the studio and made an announcement 20 minutes after the earthquake.
• The public affairs officer from the state Department of Defense went to KSSK to serve as a liaison, but had difficulty receiving updates via cell phone
• Hawai'i Public Radio was staffed but had no power or phone service.
• Maui's Pacific Radio Group had its first report on KPOA 93.5 at 7:25 a.m., and five other stations came on line later.
OCT. 15 TIME LINE
7:08 a.m. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake, followed by a second quake, struck off the coast of the Big Island.
7:15 a.m. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a bulletin saying no tsunami was expected.
7:20 a.m. Hawai'i County's Mayor Harry Kim contacted KKBG radio on the Big Island to say there had been an earthquake and no tsunami was coming.
7:57 a.m. Ray Lovell, state Civil Defense public information officer, contacted KSSK to advise listeners that there had been an earthquake but no tsunami.
(Between 7:08 and 7:57 a.m. O'ahu Civil Defense unsuccessfully tried to issue an emergency message through broadcasting radio stations).
9:57 a.m. State Civil Defense issued an emergency alert asking people to stay off the roads and use phones only in an emergency.
3 p.m. Government officials held a news conference.
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.