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List of Communities Without Sirens No Longer Secret; Newspaper Forces Information Release

One of the more remarkable disclosures since the October 15th earthquakes came on October 29th, when the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on nearly 150 “gap areas” unprotected by the State's emergency siren system.

The gaps themselves are regrettable enough, of course, but as CHORE noted that day, the most astounding disclosure in the story was State Civil Defense’s refusal to say which communities are in the gaps. We asked:

“How does refusing to tell citizens where these gaps exist serve the public good? Families living in a gap area certainly deserve to know about it and that whatever sense of security they have the sirens will alert them in an emergency is false.”

To its credit, the Star-Bulletin didn’t let the issue die and filed a “public records request” that produced what it calls Siren Weak Points around the state; the list is in today’s edition.

The list is unsettling. How do you suppose parents with children in Enchanted Lake Elementary feel, knowing the school is on the list? Or people who frequent Kapiolani Park and the five other Oahu parks listed, or residents of Sunset Beach, Velzyland, Palolo Valley, Mililani, Kahuku, Waianae, Ewa, Pearl City…? The list is extensive.

Every inhabited island except Niihau is represented (the Robinson family must have it handled), so this emergency communications deficiency has been allowed to grow until it’s now a statewide problem. Maybe more than a little of the projected $700 million State budget surplus can be spent on correcting this public safety problem.

Who Are These guys?

For only the second time, we read in today’s Bulletin about the existence of the Science Advisory Working Group, which the paper says “spent months studying communications glitches experienced during the earthquake, as well as the public’s response to it.”

The only other mention of this local group was in the October 29th story, which said it would make recommendations to the state about improving alert systems and boosting public education. A Google search produces only three hits for this particular SAWG (there are others around the planet) -- the two Star-Bulletin stories and CHORE’s 10/29 post.

Doesn’t that seem odd? Here’s a committee of some kind that’s studying how to improve emergency communications to the public, and its existence is virtually unknown. Except for its chair, we don’t know who sits on it, what their agendas are (everybody and every agency has them) and how the members presume to know what’s best for the public and how to reach us in an emergency.

It’s highly probable that the public isn’t a part of the study group, just as average citizens weren't on the Comprehensive Communications Review Committee appointed by the Governor to recommend improvements in emergency communications. Once again, citizens are on the outside.

Defining the “Overriding Issue”

The reason this matters is to be sure the committees making decisions about public safety communications don’t make bad ones. For instance, CHORE doesn’t know with certainty what the overriding issue is in this emergency communications debate, but we’re pretty sure it’s not the public’s “lack of education.”

Yet according to today’s Star-Bulletin story, that’s what the SAWG’s chair thinks it is: "You can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but if the citizenry, the news media and the visitor industry don't understand what a tsunami is and what they should do in the event of a tsunami ... if they don't know that, we are in deep trouble."

We’re already in deep trouble, and it’s not the public’s fault!

The overriding issue surely is the government’s demonstrated inability to safeguard the public with timely emergency information on October 15th. The overriding issue actually is many issues – the siren gap; outdated agency communications protocols; the broadcast industry’s backup power deficiencies; some broadcasters' poor performance on Earthquake Sunday, and undoubtedly others that members of the public could readily identify if asked.

The Public Must Be Involved

Yet because the public is not represented on the SAWG and the Comprehensive Communications Review Committee, the public's “lack of education” becomes the overriding issue.

And that’s what happens when priorities are left to our friends in government. They get to decide where the buck stops, and they seem to think it stops with us.

Professional emergency communicators and planners can’t pass the buck that easily. We citizens expect every dollar spent on experts’ salaries and their communications infrastructure to actually improve our safety. Recent events show that’s not happening.

The public must and can be brought into the picture. This will happen when State Civil Defense holds the public meeting it seemingly is committed to scheduling, based on recent contacts. CHORE anticipates progress will be made toward that end this week.

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