Tenn. county officials admit wildfire text alert never sent
Sevier County officials stated during a news conference Friday that they sent the evacuation notice via text, radio and TV
By Don Jacobs
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Sevier County officials admit they never issued a mobile evacuation alert ahead of the wildfire that swept through town and killed 13 people Monday, but blame "communication failure" due to weather disruption.
"Communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet and electrical services," according to a joint release issued Saturday by the county mayor, the city of Gatlinburg, the National Park Service and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. "Due to this communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned."
Officials didn't explain why no one attempted an alternative means of communication such as radio or why the city at first downplayed the threat of the fire — or whether TEMA even would have issued such an alert if reached.
The fire began last week as a 1.5-acre blaze when first reported on the nearby Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but was fanned by hurricane-force winds Monday around 6 p.m.into a blaze that roared through Gatlinburg and has so far consumed almost 18,000 acres. The fire damaged or destroyed more than 1,400 homes and businesses.
"Officials worked diligently to coordinate the warning to the public before and during the catastrophic wildfire event that impacted Gatlinburg, other communities in Sevier County and the park," authorities said in the release, insisting officials used social media, sent news releases and held briefings "to alert the public about the status of the fire" and the "continuously evolving situation."
Those briefings included announcements that downplayed the threat from the fire. At 5 p.m. Monday, the city issued a news release to local media that flames had not threatened any structures.
More than five hours earlier, the National Weather Service had issued an alert that "strong gusty winds will develop today and persist overnight."
By 6 p.m. Monday — barely an hour after the city's initial news release — more than 20 buildings were ablaze as winds that approached 90 mph whipped embers onto city structures and toppled power lines.
The release states downtown Gatlinburg siren system was activated "to warn the public about the impending dangerous winds and fire threat." Officials didn't say when the siren system was used, what area it covered, how many sirens went off or what message was conveyed. Gatlinburg spokeswoman Marci Claude didn't respond to phone calls Saturday.
Many residents and visitors to the tourist town have complained they received no mobile alert notification to evacuate the city Monday night.
Gatlinburg officials at 8:17 p.m. used the city's Twitter page to issue an evacuation order for the Ski Mountain, Savage Gardens, East Foothills Road and the Turkey and Davenport areas. At 9:12 p.m., the city expanded the earlier tweet to include evacuation of downtown and along the Spur toward Pigeon Forge.
Saturday's release stated the command center contacted TEMA at 8:30 p.m. to request a mandatory evacuation order be transmitted to mobile devices over the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. Officials said that conversation was disrupted by the loss of communications
Emergency officials didn't use a statewide Motorola radio communications system when other communications options failed. The Motorola radio system, which cost more than $100 million, is used by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security and several counties in East Tennessee. Sevier isn't one of those counties.
John Mathews, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency, said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller requested the evacuation order after the chief conferred with his colleagues.
The citywide evacuation order was broadcast live on local TV and radio. The only emergency alert that finally came — at 9:04 p.m., according to TEMA records — went out more than three hours after the flames had swept into Gatlinburg and went only to broadcast media.
The IPAWS alert was developed because "less than 12 percent of the population" watches television in the middle of the night and about 5 percent listen to a radio in those hours, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The IPAWS alert appears as a text message on mobile devices, accompanied by a special tone and vibration. The IPAWS alerts target all mobile devices in a specified area, so even out-of-state visitors would be warned.
Mathews said Friday he thought an evacuation alert had been sent to mobile devices.
"If people did not receive the message we sent out, of course, we are unsatisfied with it," he said.
There was some confusion over who was responsible for putting out the alert.
Mathews indicated he had relayed to TEMA officials the decision to evacuate as flames began to overrun the town.
TEMA spokesman Dean Flener previously said records show the Sevier County EMA had asked the National Weather Service office in Morristown to announce the evacuation.
"I did not call the National Weather Service — I called TEMA," Mathews said Friday.
He said he didn't know with whom he spoke.
Communications between the command post and TEMA later resumed, resulting at 10:40 p.m. in TEMA issuing an alert to mobile devices using IPAWS. That alert told recipients only to avoid using mobile devices except in case of an emergency.
Flener has said TEMA did not issue an evacuation order because of the 90-character limitation of IPAWS alerts. He said telling people to evacuate without explaining more could lead to panic.
Flener on Saturday wouldn't say whether TEMA would have issued the IPAWS evacuation order at 8:30 p.m. if communications with the command center had not been disrupted. He also wouldn't say why TEMA didn't issue a two-part IPAWS alert if more information was required.
According to the FEMA fact sheet about IPAWS, recipients of alerts on mobile devices are encouraged to seek more information from local authorities or broadcast media.
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