Communications key to improving response, Maui police say

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Feb. 6—The Maui Police Department released 32 recommendations and preliminary findings from an internal review of its response to the Aug. 8 high winds and wildfires that left 100 dead and 7,000 people homeless.

The 98-page report was put together after 26 hours of recorded radio traffic was "meticulously reviewed and analyzed to construct an accurate timeline." The Attorney General's Offices' investigation into the response to the fires is ongoing.

No cause and origin of the fires has been determined.

The immediate need is to hire and train dispatch operators and more police officers.

In August, department personnel included 296 sworn officers and 96 civilians, a sworn-officer shortage of about 25%.

"The vacancies in civilian positions are equally challenging, including a 51% shortage in the communications section (dispatch)," read the report.

On Aug. 8, between midnight and 11:59 p.m., the two communications centers received a combined total of 4,523 calls, handled by the maximum number of nine dispatchers on the communications team.

"They handled an average of 500 calls each during their 12-hour shift, which is equivalent to approximately one call every one and a half minutes," read the initial findings. "Audio recordings of the 9-1-1 calls for service were reviewed to assist in establishing timelines, sequence of events and internal communications."

Tracking the officers responding to a critical incident, coordinating and managing their tasks efficiently with existing resources was cited as a top takeaway.

"In policing, we respond to dynamic and evolving situations. We cannot control the incidents we respond to; we can, however, control our responses in the aftermath. To enhance our preparedness and response capabilities for future incidents, MPD chose to evaluate this incident so others within the profession can learn from our response," wrote MPD Chief John Pelletier in a letter introducing the preliminary findings released Monday. "An extensive review of our work can save lives, which is, without a doubt, the ultimate goal of law enforcement."

MPD is creating a "procedure for call signs for officers that self-deploy during a critical/large scale incident."

Updating the department's policy and capability to communicate with officers and civilian staff when communication systems are compromised or overwhelmed is also being explored.

At 2:55 p.m. Aug. 8, radio communications "surged with officers coordinating evacuations as well as relaying current conditions and their subsequent actions in the immediate and surrounding areas of the fire."

"On investigation, it is evident that there were issues with radio communications at times. These issues included periodic miscommunications," read the report.

Officers standing outside of their vehicles had trouble hearing in the high winds.

Officers experienced a "high amount of radio traffic throughout the fire event." The radio traffic among police, firefighters and other first responders can be attributed to the "rapidly moving and widely dynamic nature of the weather and fire on that day, which led to widespread issues across Lahaina" and, in turn, "officers reporting and addressing these issues via radio."

"At the peak of the incident, officer staffing reached 49 in the Lahaina District. These officers were experiencing critical events in front of them at the same time in multiple different locations, leading to a lot of information being aired over the radio. At most times, this radio traffic was being monitored by and responded to by a single dispatcher. Of note, on a typical day, radio channels will have at most 15 officers working over a single radio frequency," read the findings. "There were also instances where it was apparent that officers may have missed certain transmissions. This also can be attributed to several factors including: the fact that many officers were standing in the elements, many officers were actively engaged in evacuations, and the sheer number of critical events happening at the same time at different locations."

Updating the department's body-worn camera policies to ensure officers turn them on when dispatched is ongoing.

The report also included summaries of nine accounts of activity that day from Maui police officers. The officers' names are not provided in the preliminary report.

By 4:40 p.m. Aug. 8, one officer had identified "major traffic buildup on Front Street as people tried to escape the ensuing fire."

"The officer responded by finding and leading evacuees through a passage for vehicles to escape northbound on Honoapiilani Highway. This action alleviated the congestion on Front Street, allowing for more efficient evacuations," the after-action report found. "The officer then assisted in neighborhood evacuations along Front Street, making personal contacts and using the P.A. system. Throughout the afternoon, the police officer adapted to changing conditions, directing traffic through various routes for safe evacuation and identifying alternative paths."

The report also recommends the purchase and installation of Real Time Crime Center cameras throughout the island at critical locations to track crime and "detect and alert the presence of smoke and fire."

"To have cutting edge technology would not only reduce crime and response times to crimes but also to be able to detect smoke would provide the community with assurance that they are safer than ever before."

On Aug. 8, "communi­cations received an unpre­cedented 4,523 calls for service, spanning police, fire and medical emergencies."

Prior to that, dispatch managed an average of 360 calls a day.

"In addition to calls regarding the fires, calls continued to come in regarding other issues, including cases of family abuse, fire alarms, reckless driving, motor vehicle collisions, requests for personal assistance as well as life threatening and non-life- threatening medical calls," read the findings. "The communications section heroically managed to get these callers support, while also attending to the thousands of incoming calls for service from the Lahaina and Kula fires."

The 911 dispatch center was "inundated with calls from the public."

Dispatch received many phone calls asking for updates on road closures, and callers "complained that phone updates were not communicated in a timely manner."

One of the recommen­dations is to increase "personnel through retention compensation and equitable pay for the emergency services communications personnel provides."

Upgrading MPD's Computer Aided Dispatch and hardware systems to "newer equipment and software with capacity and ability to manage large data files" will help officers and civilian personnel managing massive flows of information in critical incidents like the Aug. 8 fires.

Those upgrades are in progress, according to Maui police.

"In the event of a disaster the public should be directed to call a dedicated phone line. This phone line needs to be messaged in such a way that it is as common as 4-1-1, 8-1-1-, 9-1-1 etc. so that the public knows who to call, i.e. for road closures, hazards, evacuations, shelters, or any other emergency messaging." This was a finding that came after residents and visitors complained about conflicting or nonexistent emergency alerts from government agencies.