Communications Failure in Gatlinburg Wildfires

To date, the wildfire that broke out in Gatlinburg, TN last week has claimed the lives of 14 people. The evacuation notification system that was supposed to alert residents by text message reportedly missed some cell numbers, and only alerted others after the fires had reached Gatlinburg itself, according to NBC4.

According to a joint press release issued on Dec. 3 by Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials, the notifications were sent beginning at 10 am., escalating to sirens and door-to-door notifications as the fire drew closer, in coordination with state emergency agencies. “At approximately 8:30 p.m., the command post contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) requesting an Emergency Alert System (EAS) evacuation message to be sent to the Gatlinburg area through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), a system which has the capability of sending text messages to mobile devices,” said the release. “However, communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet, and electrical services. Due to this interruption, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned through IPAWS as an EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices. At the same time, the National Weather Service was unable to reach the local command post. Through collaboration with the Sevier County Dispatch, they were able to deliver the mandatory evacuation alert through an EAS message to radio and television only. Once communications were reestablished, TEMA was able to send a mobile message later in the evening via IPAWS asking Sevier County residents to stay off mobile devices except for emergency use.”

John Matthews with the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency told reporters: “We sent out a notification to the mobile devices – I believe the timestamp is 9:04pm – to evacuate the city. Any mobile device that was connected to any cell phone tower in this city would have received this message.” According to Matthews, power outages and lost cell phone reception was the likely cause of the miscommunication.

According to NBC4, the emergency alert system will be reviewed by Sevier County officials. “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,” Sevier County mayor Larry Waters told the news station.