Skip to main content


MISSION: To Ensure the Lahaina Fire Tragedy Will Be the Last Time Hawaii Emergency Management so Poorly Serves the Public

The cause of the August 2023 wildfire that destroyed Lahaina, Maui and killed at least 114 residents is still unknown at this writing. What was immediately obvious was the absence of any effective alert to the public. Authorities failed to activate the so-called "tsunami warning" siren system, even though it could have at least alerted residents to their peril. Many survivors angrily complained they received no warning whatsoever. Emergency communications planners must stay abreast of best practices in their field, just like doctors, scientists, professionals, and experts in all disciplines. Had officials within the Maui Emergency Management Agency implemented the lessons learned after California's major wildfires in the past decade, they would have been prepared to meaningfully respond to the wildfire's threat to Lahaina, CHORE and a companion website -- (loads slowly at the Internet's Wayback Machine archive ) -- have advocated major reforms
Recent posts

Lessons Learned in the Paradise and other California Wildfires Were Apparently Lost on Maui; Warning Sirens Went Unused in Lahaina Fire, Officials Relied on Networks with History of Failure Elsewhere

  Hawaii officials have been explaining why Maui's siren network wasn't activated in last week's Lahaina fire, which killed at least 111 people. The explanation attracting the most attention was offered by a Maui official: “Sirens have not been used for brush fires. It is our practice to use the most effective means of conveying an emergency message to the public during a wildland fire…”  He included alerts sent to cell phones as one of those  “ most effective means.” That was unfortunate. Mainland agencies have learned that cell phone-based networks – ones used by Maui’s Emergency Management Agency – frequently fail during fires. And they can’t match radio’s coverage and speed. (Evening Update: Citing health concerns, this official has submitted his resignation.) This same official offered other explanations for not activating Maui’s sirens: ·        “We were afraid that people would have gone mauka. and if that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”  ·   

More than 100 Died in Lahaina Fire after Maui's Crisis Communications Plan Failed

This blog has promoted emergency communication reform since its first post on October 17, 2006. The evidence that reform is desperately needed builds with each wildfire tragedy, and the Lahaina, Maui fire during August 8-9 is the latest.   A continuing theme here at CHORE: W arning messages intended for a mass audience require a mass medium. No wildfire can outrun a radio broadcast. Radio is the fastest and most accessible mass medium for life-saving messages to the masses. Cell phone networks and other channels are nice to have, but they’re no substitute for fast-as-lightning AM radio, which rarely if ever fails during a wildfire. This isn’t rocket science, but as we’ve learned repeatedly in the past decade, far too many communications planners just don’t get it.    A Journalist Reports   A retired journalist who was vacationing on Maui has provided compelling validation of this blog’s promotion of AM radio as a key component of public agencies’ emergency communications plans.   Katy

On Second Anniversary of California’s Camp Fire, a Look-Back on Lessons Learned – and Lost – in another Emergency. NorCal Fire Warning Failures Continue, so Let’s See What We Learned in 1982 during Hawaii’s Hurricane Iwa

California’s deadliest wildfire tore through the town of Paradise two years ago on November 8. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and left thousands displaced and grieving for their paradise, lost in the forests of Northern California. I’ve been campaigning here at CHORE for improved wildfire alerts since even before that fire’s well-documented failures (archived site loads slowly), and I’ve generally avoided using the “I” word in these posts. This campaign isn’t about attracting attention to myself.    But – I  do  have the kind of hands-on emergency communications experience that appears lacking in far too many California officials charged with emergency response.  My September 21 post strongly hinted at what hands-on proactivity looks like in calling for “a new way of thinking, of taking action, of shouldering personal responsibility to save lives.”  Learned Lessons Lost Hurricane Iwa struck Hawaii in November 1982 and quickly forced me and the rest of Hawaiian Electric Company’s cor

Finally, Some Media Focus on Tragic Wildfire Fact: Systems That Warn People about Evacuations Have Dangerous Drawbacks. Millions of Californians Rely on Alerts That May Never Arrive. Another Fact: AM Radio Rarely Fails in a Crisis

  Taylor Craig stands on the edge of his family's property outside of Vacaville, CA on Oct. 2020. Craig fought off the flames and protected his home after not  receiving  any evacuation warnings. Photo by CalMatters. CalMatters, the nonprofit journalism venture based in Sacramento, CA, recently turned its health intern loose to examine why so many wildfire alerts and warnings have failed in California’s 2017-2020 mega-fire season.   The resulting 2,700-word-plus article is must-reading for anyone responsible for planning and executing digital messages designed to keep people safe from wildfires.   One drawback of these systems is that they often require citizens to sign up or register to receive messages communicated over cell phone networks.   Ken Dueker, Palo Alto’s Office of Emergency Services director, told CalMatters: “You’ve got to sign up and, frankly, very few people do…. I don’t blame them because they don’t know about the tool -- they falsely assume the government has th

Yet Again, NorCal Residents Flee Wildfires in Panic, with No Warning or Time To Save Valuables; Yet Again, Something's Not Right

  The news out of California this morning is all about wildfires. Several erupted over the weekend, as covered by the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle . The photo was taken early today in Santa Rosa, CA.  An NPR newscast this morning carried an interview with a Santa Rosa resident whose voice communicated the panic she felt when forced to flee with no warning.  It will take time to evaluate what went wrong with the warning process, once again. "Blame," and that's what it should be called, may spread over to residents, and it will take time to know why some residents were outside the warning bubble. But blaming victims is never correct. If blame needs spreading, it must cover those whose warning systems fail to alert residents early enough to allow a less-than-panicked exodus. Old School Solutions Air raid sirens in the middle of the night wake people up. Emergency vehicles with European-style high-low sirens can do that, too (some California communities have in

Fixing California’s Wildfire Alert Failures Requires a New Way of Thinking, of Taking Action, of Shouldering Personal Responsibility To Save Lives

  California's 2020 wildfire report likely will include scores of deaths before the last of the fires adds its acreage and fatality numbers to the total. Since 2017, the death toll from wildfires is above 150, and the state’s historical fire season still has weeks to go as the calendar turns to Fall.   CHORE insists that  many – maybe most – of those deaths could have been avoided if warnings had been easily accessible by the victims. Numerous media reports beginning with the Tubbs Fire in 2017 carried accounts of survivors’ angry assertions they received no warning.   “Received” is the action word in that sentence. It’s not enough to simply transmit warnings; they must be  received  to be effective.   Too many officials – from warning protocol planners at the State level to county sheriffs – are not committed to ensuring the public  receives  their alerts. If they were so committed, survivors would not complain of warning failures.   A New Way of Thinking   And that’s where a mind

At What Point Do We Begin Holding Officials Responsible for Wildfire Deaths when They Clearly Fail To Learn from Previous Warning Failures?

 Northern California wildfires raged on during the September 12-13 weekend, and newspapers duly reported on more warning failures: San Francisco Chronicle: “Wildfire warning systems by text, email, cell phone alert or reverse 911 call can’t always reach everyone in remote areas where coverage isn’t available, or when power or service cuts off. And sometimes, as happened in this season’s lightning-sparked blazes, the system can’t keep up with the speed and unpredictability of wildfires. Officials with Cal Fire confirmed that there was no evacuation warning for Last Chance, and that the evacuation order came just after 10 p.m. Sheriff’s deputies had no time to go door to door.” Let that last bit sink in: “Sheriff’s deputies had no time to go door to door. ” Is that really  the alert protocol when cell phone notifications fail? Deputies go door to door? San Francisco Chronicle: As soon as Cal Fire sent word of the imminent danger, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea sent out an evacuation war

Wildfire History Repeats; Officials Keep Trying To Push Warnings to Residents Using Systems that Just Don’t Get It Done, Even as AM Radio Is Under-Utilized

The philosopher was right: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."    The Northern California wildfires this week are showing how right he was.    Emergency managers continue to screw up evacuation messages to residents that are meant to save lives. From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat : Sonoma County officials are trying to rectify mistakes made with its various emergency alert systems that at times this week have either gone to the wrong area or even included evacuation orders from previous wildfires.   The Los Angeles Times took note of alert confusion and failures in an August 25th story headlined “California emergency alert system experiences some problems as monster fires raged” (subscription required): And then there is Sonoma County, where, unlike three years ago when the previous emergency management director failed to alert some residents of a fire at all, the department’s current leader is concerned with having alerted too many. “Using this s

Improved Public Information System Needed To Save Lives during California Wildfires in the New Abnormal

More lives were lost in the November 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, CA than in any other fire in the state's history. As of November 20, the count had reached 79, with hundreds of residents still missing. Survivors have complained they received no warning as flames raced into the community of 27,000 and destroyed nearly every structure.  As reported widely, officials did not activate a warning system that was designed to issue evacuation alerts. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports: “Like Sonoma County officials last year, authorities in Butte County are coming under attack for not issuing a wide-spread emergency message to cell phones, known as a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, when the fire broke out. “The high death toll of the Camp Fire is in large part due to people failing to learn of the danger and quickly evacuate. Several burned in their cars.” Officials said the fire was so hot and fast-moving that “devastation is inevitable, espec