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Alerting System Lessons from the Gatlinburg "Chimneytops 2" Fire

Date: 2017-10-20
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- https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5112/

Image Above right: Smoke from the Chimneytops 2 Fire in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, November 23, 2016. Thought to be contained by geography, five days later  it was fanned by hurricane-force winds and tore into Gatlinburg and parts of Sevier County, TN.  Information Station Photo. 

Fires raging in California remind us that it's been less than a year since a roaring inferno, fanned by hurricane-force winds, tore through popular tourist destination Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people and terrifying thousands of residents and Thanksgiving visitors while destroying millions of dollars in property. It took super-human effort to evacuate 14,000 people on short notice while attempting to suppress the fire in tinder-dry, mountainous terrain.

What did local officials learn from the experience? One thing for sure, according to Captain Joe Galentine of the Gatlinburg Fire Department: they needed a more comprehensive way of reaching people they serve with real-time emergency instructions.  Their solution:  an ALERT AM Emergency Advisory Radio Network, integrated with special signs, outdoor warning sirens and text-based emergency notifications. Here's why.

The speed and ferocity of the firestorm had overwhelmed Gatlinburg's safety systems. Cell towers had become overloaded. Fire fighters had experienced communication issues. 9-1-1 calls had flooded in and needed to be rerouted to other counties. The Emergency Operation Center’s phone system had lost power. Fire hydrants had gone dry when water pumping stations lost power or burned.  

Galentine explains that when winds roar at more than 80 mph across dry ground, a wildfire can move so fast that it can quickly sever public escape routes and overtake all means of communicating safety information.

Left: Captain Joe Galentine of the Gatlinburg Fire Department.
Other Images on page: Capt. Galentine’s photos of the fire damage.

Those in charge decided to install three synchronized emergency advisory radio stations to cover Gatlinburg and portions of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This will provide a means of communicating with the general public, because virtually everyone has access to a radio receiver.  The radio system will be integrated with outdoor warning sirens, special emergency signs and a text/email/phone notification platform to provide a comprehensive means of alerting residents and visitors alike wherever they are – whether in vehicles, at home or on foot.  In this unique system, text-based notifications will automatically be converted into broadcast messages to be heard on all radio receivers in the community.  Underway now, the implementation will become a countywide communication tool to be commanded by the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency.   The goal is to reach more people more quickly with more useful information.

Establishing an emergency advisory radio network such as this was made possible by a recent FCC rule detailing how Travelers' Information (TIS) radio stations may be leveraged in emergencies to protect life and property. According to the FCC, the stations may be synchronized to cover communities with local safety officials having total authority to manage broadcast content during crises.

The hope is, of course, that such a wildfire will never again happen in Gatlinburg – or anywhere. But if there is a next time in Gatlinburg, evacuating citizens will be guided by multiple methodologies that overlap and dovetail so that no one is left behind.  

Gatlinburg/Sevier County is obtaining the ALERT AM system from its only source: Information Station Specialists. Founded in 1983, this Michigan-based company offers the only system of its kind to automatically convert text-style alerts into radio broadcasts -- key to keeping people on the same page during an evacuation. For more information, see:  http://www.theradiosource.com/resources/stations-alert.htm.

- Corporate News/9-1-1magazine.com (via Information Station Specialists, 10/18/17)

 

 

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