On communication failures in Gatlinburg wildfires

Sevier County officials admit they never issued a mobile evacuation alert ahead of the wildfire that swept through town and killed 13 people, reports the News Sentinel. The “communication failure” is blamed on the weather.

The article’s review of events leading up to the widespread destruction in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge also indicates there may have been some misinformation. Many residents and visitors to the tourist town have complained they received no mobile alert notification to evacuate the city Monday night.

(Initial media) 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.

…(T)he 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.

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