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Maui sues cell carriers over wildfire warning alerts that were never received during service outages

By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER, Associated Press
Published: May 3, 2024, 7:44am

HONOLULU (AP) — Had emergency responders known about widespread cellphone outages during the height of last summer’s deadly Maui wildfires, they would have used other methods to warn about the disaster, county officials said in a lawsuit.

Alerts the county sent to cellphones warning people to immediately evacuate were never received, unbeknownst to the county, the lawsuit said.

Maui officials failed to activate sirens that would have warned the entire population of the approaching flames. That has raised questions about whether everything was done to alert the public in a state that possesses an elaborate emergency warning system for a variety of dangers including wars, volcanoes, hurricanes and wildfires.

Major cellular carriers were negligent in failing to properly inform Maui police of widespread service outages, county officials said in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court against Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA, Spectrum Mobile and AT&T.

“We continue to stand with the Maui community as it heals from the tragic fires, but these claims are baseless,” T-Mobile said in a statement Thursday. “T-Mobile broadcasted wireless emergency alerts to customers while sites remained operational, promptly sent required outage notifications, and quickly contacted state and local emergency agencies and services.”

A Spectrum representative declined to comment, and the other carriers didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

A flood of lawsuits has come out since the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century ripped through the historic town of Lahaina and killed 101 people.

Maui County is a defendant in multiple lawsuits over its emergency response during the fires. The county is also suing the Hawaiian Electric Company, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.

In Maui’s latest legal action, lawyers for the county say if the county is found liable for damages, then the cell carriers’ “conduct substantially contributed to the damages” against the county.

“On August 8 and August 9, 2023, while the County’s courageous first responders battled fires across the island and worked to provide first aid and evacuate individuals to safety, the County notified those in the vicinity of danger through numerous alerts and warnings, including through direct text messaging to individual cell phones,” the lawsuit said.

The county sent at least 14 alert messages to cellphones, warning residents to evacuate, the lawsuit said. The county later discovered all 21 cell towers serving West Maui, including in Lahaina, experienced total failure.

“As of the date of this filing, the Cell Carriers still have not reported to the County the true extent and reach of the cell service outages on August 8 and August 9, 2023, as they are mandated to do under federal law,” the lawsuit said. “Had the Cell Carriers accurately reported to the County the complete and widespread failure of dozens of cell sites across the island as they were mandated to do by law, the County would have utilized different methods in its disaster and warning response.”

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