Officials: No text alerts during Gatlinburg evacuations because of ‘communications failure’

(Photo: TEMA)

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park say the lack of text notifications during the evacuations in Gatlinburg Monday night was due to a “communication failure” between various agencies caused by disrupted communications systems.

Some residents told WATE 6 On Your Side they didn’t receive the alert on their mobile devices and others said it was broadcast after the fire had reached the city.

A spokesperson with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park said in a release Saturday they kept the public aware of what was going on with the fires beginning at 10 a.m. Monday and the downtown Gatlinburg siren alert system was used to warn the public about the threat. Door-to-door notifications began at noon.

The command post contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency at 8:30 p.m. to request an Emergency Alert System evacuation to be sent through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). However, communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet and electricity.

“Due to this communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned through IPAWS, as an EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices,” said the release from GSMNP officials.

Eventually, TEMA was able to get out an IPAWS message out asking people to stay off their mobile devices except to make emergency calls.

The National Weather Service was also unable to reach the local command post. Through the assistance of Sevier County dispatch, they were able to get the message to television and radio stations.

Meanwhile, the NWS said Friday night it never sent any alerts about the Gatlinburg wildfire evacuations to mobile phone users because evacuations are not included in the Wireless Emergency Alerts system.

“We send that message out it goes over the NOAA Weather Radio it alerts the Emergency Alert System in which the tone alerts go off, weather radios go off, the scrolls at the bottom of the TV screens begin, and radios also play those tone alerts that you hear,” said Anthony Cavalucci, Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website indicates that the wireless alert system can be used for weather emergencies, AMBER Alerts and presidential alerts during a national emergency. Anthony Cavallucci, NWS spokesperson, says the Emergency Alert System was activated, which sent messages to NOAA weather radios, TV stations and designated EAS-participating radio stations.

Messages are also limited to 90 characters.

Officials said during Friday’s 11 a.m. press conference it was their understanding that an evacuation message went out to all mobile users in Gatlinburg.

“We sent out a notification to the mobile devices – I believe the timestamp is 9:04 p.m. – to evacuate the city,” said John Matthews with the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency. “Any mobile device that was connected to any cell phone tower in this city would have received this message.”

Related: ‘No Monday morning quarterbacking,’ Sevier County mayor defends accusations someone dropped the ball

Matthews said anyone who didn’t get the message was likely because of power outages or lost cell phone reception and the alert was sent as soon as they were aware of the magnitude of the fire.

 

“Two fireman knocked on the door with yellow coats on. They told me I had to evacuate now, because the wind gust was going so fast they had to get everyone out,” said Gatlinburg resident Brenda Reimer.

Reimer said she got out with only the clothes on her back. She said there was one escape route. She said there were no directions from police across the way.

“They didn’t tell me that you could come up to Rocky Top to shelter or anything, so I headed to Newport and that road was terrible… trees across the road and everything,” said Reimer.

Sevier County officials say they plan to scrutinize their emergency alert system and what can be done to improve it.

“The emergency folks will sit down and evaluate what went on and how it can be improved. You can always improve any system you have and we feel confident that we can do that, but we’re going to have a complete evaluation of how that system worked and improve that system, but that is going to take some time,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.

WATE 6 On Your Side has reached out to Sevier County EMA Director John Matthews for comment.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director Dean Flener said TEMA also worked with Pigeon Forge officials to activate the Emergency Alert System about evacuating a part of Pigeon Forge around 11:30 p.m. Monday night.

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