East Hawaii News

HI-EMA: Evidence Points to Electrical Fault as Cause for Siren Malfunction in Hilo

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Investigators with the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency are continuing to look into the cause for a technical malfunction that set off a tsunami siren in error Saturday night in Hilo.

“We have not conclusively determined the cause, but all the evidence so far is consistent with an electrical fault of some kind,” Adam Weintraub, HI-EMA spokesman, told Big Island Now on Sunday afternoon. “Our investigators will examine the equipment and try to pin down the exact cause.”

The siren that sounded starting shortly after 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, was located near the intersection of Banyan Drive and Kamehameha Avenue in central Hilo, near Ken’s House of Pancakes and the zero mile markers for Highways 11 and 19, according to Weintraub.

Hawaiʻi County officials confirmed just before 9 p.m. that there was no emergency and the sounding of the siren was a false alarm.

HI-EMA regularly tests and maintains a statewide network of more than 400 sirens to ensure the system is functioning correctly to warn the public in the event of an emergency. Weintraub said there is no indication the siren that malfunctioned Saturday has done so in the past or that it has a history that would require closer than normal monitoring.


“We regularly maintain and service the siren network to prevent problems and maintain our early warning alert system across the state,” he said.

Considering it’s a statewide network and the number of sirens the agency maintains, many of which are in public areas constantly exposed to the elements, Weintraub added that it’s much more likely HI-EMA hears about sirens not working instead of one sounding in error.

He added that malfunctions are relatively rare, usually occurring at most a handful of times each year and typically involving a single siren going off briefly, such as what happened in Hilo on Saturday night.

“The most common causes of malfunctions that we see are usually related to electrical or mechanical components wearing out, or to weather driving water into the electrical system, or to large insects or lizards squeezing their way into the wiring and causing a short circuit,” Weintraub said.


HI-EMA runs a program of preventive maintenance to keep the equipment working and regularly tests the communications systems that allow the state agency and its county partners to control the network of sirens.

“That system has undergone substantial improvements in the past few years and HI-EMA is working to upgrade older sirens to the latest generation of warning devices,” Weintraub said.

Regular monthly tests of the sirens are conducted.

“The monthly siren tests serve multiple purposes, including to assure the public that the warning system is working and raise awareness about the sirens,” the HI-EMA spokesman said. “They also give our emergency management teams an opportunity to drill on the use of the network so they can act quickly and accurately in the event of a real emergency.”


Weintraub said the agency also has a loyal group of people throughout the islands who monitor the monthly tests and inform HI-EMA if a siren in their area is not working or somehow sounds different.

“That allows us to direct our repair teams more quickly to those locations,” he said.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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