(BIVN) – Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense officials went before the Hawaiʻi County Council Finance Committee on Thursday, as part of a three-day, departmental budget review process. Much of the discussion focused on the events of 2018, and the destructive eruption of Kīlauea Volcano on the lower East Rift Zone.
“We’re definitely in a better position than we were in May,” said Civil Defense administrator Talmadge Magno. “The recovery – you can see the complexities that have developed with this eruption. We work with the other departments in planning. Right now, we’re actively working on tsunami plans, ramping up for hurricane season.”
But many councilmembers had concerns about communication. During the eruption, impacted communities commonly complained that they were not being given reliable information from the local government. The Big Island Press Club even bestowed their annual, dubious Lava Tube Award on Civil Defense for its handling of communications with the public and the media.
“I want to lean in a little bit on a piece that we’ve heard from the community,” said Puna councilowman Ashley Kierkiewicz during the Finance Committee review. “Not enough communication coming out from the county throughout the lava eruption. I’m sure that’s a lesson that you feel that you’ve learned very well, and so I just wonder what adjustments have been made within your operation to ensure that there is a consistent and accurate and timely flow of information during times of disaster, out into the community?”
“If we don’t communicate enough, there are these information gaps,” Kierkiewicz added, “and that’s when the rumor mill starts churning.”
Magno confirmed that communication has been identified as an issue in the after-action review of the 2018 disaster. “We identified a joint information center, which is part of the incident command system, how information is shared to the public.”
“As far as social media, that needs to be bolstered,” Magno said, adding that the county plans to contract with “some groups that will do the social media tracking for us.”
“As far as the PIO,” or Public Information Officer, Magno said, “we will work with the mayor’s office as far as – you know – public information.”
“So, the flow of information is,” clarified Kierkiewicz, “you get the information from the field experts, then you work with the mayor’s office to coordinate a message. It doesn’t just come automatically from civil defense?”
“They’re with us,” Magno said about the various County departments. “During an incident, we’re all together. The mayor’s staff are in our office, and so through them were pushing out the information.”
Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy looked into the Civil Defense budget and said she saw a Public Information Officer / Recovery Specialist position, “but that position is vacant.”
“I want to understand better why the department is not trying to stand up or fill that position. Talk to me about that, because the communication was… needs improvement.”
Giving some background, Magno said that “just as the event kicked off, the person that was in that position transferred out. So we fill that void bringing in, alongside with the PIOs that were in the county and in the mayor’s office supporting us, we brought in PIOs from other departments statewide. So they supported us by putting information out.”
Magno said the decision was made to emphasize recovery, “so that position, the PIO / Recovery Specialist will be re-written as a Recovery Specialist and transitioned into that, and going with the the idea that the PIO out of the mayor’s office will support us.”
After a pause, Lee Loy responded, “I have some general concerns with that. Because we rely on the information that is come is coming out of civil defense, because of all of the capabilities and technology that you guys get when these types of events happen. And so, to pluck someone out of the mayor’s office during this time – and I hear what you’re saying everybody kind of converges in – but in an earthquake, they’re running their own lives, whereas you guys have a network and a team. And I would rather see it there.”
“So let me interject,” Magno said. “Everybody that is responsible to come to the [Emergency Operations Center] … it’s stressed upon them that you got to take care of your life in a way that you can respond. The sudden onset ,we build for that. Whatever your family makeup is, you got to make sure that they’re prepared that you can leave at a moments notice. That’s what we build for.”
“Is that job description written into all the PIOs across DPW or mayor’s office,” Lee Loy asked, “that that is the understanding that if they take that position, whether it’s in the mayor’s office or parks department,
that that is the expectation?”
“I don’t know,” answered Magno.
“So maybe you guys need to put your heads together a little bit and manage that expectation. Good information helps us make good decisions and in times of emergency, that’s what the larger public needs,” Lee Loy said.
“We need to have a better form of communication,” echoed Councilmember Tim Richards, recalling complaints he received from constituents in his district last year, when a wildfire burned through Waikoloa. “I’m asking
you, Talmadge, do you need us to mandate this so we can get this message system and communication center up and running? Because what we’re doing now is not working. The constituency are not happy.”
“It doesn’t have to be mandated,” Magno answered. “It’s part of what we’re supposed to be doing. If it’s not adequate, we just need to ramp it up.”
“We as a council may need to do something to help create this position,” Richards said after some further discussion. “Whether it’s a legislative motion or something like that. And I’m pressing you, Talmadge, on
this because – again, we’ve talked about the communication. We have to increase and ramp up our communication because our our constituency is asking for it.”
“I’m not directing it directly at Civil Defense,” Richards said, “because this is actually Civil Defense, fire, police and really the county as a whole. We need to communicate better.”