Officials decline to address questions about public safety notifications
DON JACOBS, HAYES HICKMAN, Knoxville News-Sentinel
Although authorities repeatedly said no public safety officials thought a fire nearly 6 miles deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park could threaten outlying areas, the Gatlinburg fire chief requested additional firefighters from outside agencies six hours before the first flames invaded the city.
And Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller’s 11:52 a.m. Nov. 28 mutual aid request for firefighters from outside agencies was issued six hours before the fire chief ordered the first mandatory evacuation of Mynatt Park and other nearby communities. Miller didn’t order a citywide mandatory evacuation until 8:30 p.m.
The firestorm that swept Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and portions of Sevier County would be responsible for 14 deaths, 180 injuries and more than 2,400 damaged or destroyed structures. Officials on Tuesday said damage from the fire will exceed $500 million.
Officials with Gatlinburg, Sevier County and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency have declined to address questions about public notifications of the impending danger and why mandatory evacuations weren’t issued sooner. Officials estimated 14,000 people fled the firestorm. Some evacuees left pets stranded in cabins and few had time to collect personal papers or medications.
A review of available information has revealed:
Miller issued the first mutual aid request when flames were reported 1.5 miles south of the city near the Twin Creeks Science Center and pavilion in the National Park;
A National Park spokeswoman at 2 p.m. held a wind-blown news conference about the threat of the growing wildfire and alerting outlying communities, especially Gatlinburg, of the danger of flames whipping through homes and facilities;
Miller issued two more mutual aid requests at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with the second a statewide plea, although a citywide evacuation was two hours away;
The fire chief didn’t order activation of a siren evacuation system of smoke-filled downtown Gatlinburg until 8:30 p.m.;
Sevier County authorities never activated its CodeRED alert system, which sends notifications by email, cellphone text or voice messages over landlines to those registered for the emergency service;
Officials said TEMA was unable to issue an alert to mobile phones about the evacuation because of disrupted cellphone service to the Gatlinburg command post, yet failed to use the state Motorola radio system that was tied directly into the Nashville Emergency Operations Center;
An evacuation alert sent to televisions and radios over the Emergency Alert System wasn’t issued until 9:03 p.m. after the National Weather Service persisted in asking if the notification should be broadcast; and
Authorities didn’t use the state Department of Transportation overhead message boards to communicate alerts about the firestorm until the day after flames invaded Gatlinburg.
How the fire began, how it moved
It all started with an arson discovered about 5:20 p.m. Nov. 23 by a fire maintenance worker responding to a car fire on Newfound Gap Road, said National Park Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan. From the road, the park employee saw smoke from a fire covering an area just more than a football field and end zones – about 1.5 acres.
Because of the steep, rocky terrain at the apex of Chimney Tops, National Park Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky decided containment rather than direct attack was the safer method to suppress the slow-burning wildfire. Salansky settled upon a 410-acre containment area using trails, natural barriers and hand-cobbled firebreaks.
Throughout the night of Nov. 27, however, the Chimney Tops fire that previously had been restricted to voids between rocks on the steep cliff jumped about a mile across Newfound Gap Road and onto Bull Head Trail on Mount LeConte. Jordan said the fire hop-scotched from ridgetop to ridgetop to Twin Creeks Science Center. Jordan estimated the fire moved 3 miles in about three hours.
Flames discovered at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 28 prompted a call at 11:43 a.m. for Gatlinburg firefighters to join those from the National Park and the Tennessee Division of Forestry to protect buildings at Twin Creeks. None of those buildings were damaged, Jordan said.
Miller, Jordan and other Sevier County officials have said no one thought the five-day-old fire would pose a threat to communities lining the park boundary.
“Gatlinburg is 5.5 miles from Chimney Tops,” Jordan said. “It was unconscionable that the fire would be a threat to Gatlinburg.
“Our fire manager had never seen fire spot that far. It was unheard of around here.”
Despite that thinking, Miller, nine minutes after the Twin Creeks fire was found, issued a mutual aid request from all firefighting agencies in Sevier County.
The Twin Creeks facility lies 1.5 miles from the boundary of the National Park. Directly on the other side of that boundary is the Mynatt Park community in Gatlinburg.
Miller said he had firefighters and police officers at noon go door to door in Mynatt Park to alert residents of a voluntary evacuation because of the smoke and aggressive flames. It was nearly two hours later, at 1:48 p.m., when city officials designated the Community Center an evacuation shelter. The city asked the American Red Cross to manage the shelter.
With the discovery of the flames, National Park officials evacuated employees from the Twin Creeks Science Center and within an hour were texting 29 back country campers to leave the park.
Miller wouldn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order for Mynatt Park and nearby communities until 6 p.m., when more than 20 structures were ablaze in the city.
At 2 p.m., National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn held a wind-whipped news conference warning of the potential spread of fires through the transport of embers by increasingly faster southerly wind gusts. She warned winds already had gusted at 50 mph and were expected to reach 85 mph.
Authorities later said wind gusts on Cove Mountain were recorded at 87 mph at 6 p.m. when the National Park weather station lost power.
“We’ve sent out an alert to all our local communities, especially the Gatlinburg community,” she said as she battled wind gusts for control of her paper notes.
“So they are well aware of the potential threat to structures and facilities along the park boundary and private property.”
At 2:30 p.m., Miller expanded his mutual aid request from Sevier County to a regional plea for help. Nothing was burning in the city and there was no mandatory evacuation in the city.
Multiple alert options
Public safety officials didn’t use any of multiple options to alert residents and visitors of a pre-evacuation or evacuation until after flames invaded the city and dozens of structures were burning.
A pre-evacuation alert would have allowed people time to gather personal belongings, medications, documents and food and bedding for pets if a mandatory evacuation followed. Families whose members had gone in different directions at the tourist mecca could have reunited.
Instead, anyone calling Sevier County 911 with concerns about wildfire smoke blown into Gatlinburg was accurately told there was no evacuation order for areas outside the National Park.
Authorities had several options in their tool belt to convey potential danger to the public, but didn’t use them as the fire chief sought additional firefighters.
Sevier County pays a subscription fee for CodeRED, an alert system that sends messages to those who register for it via texts, phone calls or emails. The National Weather Service is authorized to activate the Emergency Alert System that allows broadcasters to send messages over televisions and radios. And TEMA is approved to use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System that targets mobile devices with emergency messages within a specified geographic area.
At 5 p.m., Miller held a news conference and assured the public nothing was on fire in Gatlinburg.
Asked why he didn’t issue evacuation orders earlier, Miller said he had. As incident commander, public safety protocol deemed Miller responsible for evacuation and mutual aid requests in Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
“The challenge is in the fact that a single notification system that would contact everyone simply does not exist,” the chief said.
“We utilized multiple methods throughout the day, beginning at noon, to alert citizens and visitors. Firefighters and police officers went door to door in multiple areas of town, an email alert was sent through the Chamber of Commerce to all businesses (including hotels) to evacuate, and we had also requested the PIO (Public Information Officer) send messages to all local media outlets to interrupt broadcasting to deliver an emergency evacuation order.”
Miller, however, did not respond to a request for times when he employed those methods to notify people of the evacuation and which communities were targeted.
Marci Claude, spokeswoman for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, was asked when emails were sent to businesses and hotels, the number of recipients and about the content of the notes. She said Monday authorities were compiling that information and said it will be available “soon.”
Miller said from 5:45 to 6:06 p.m., multiple fires erupted across the city. Some were started by embers blown by high winds from the National Park onto homes in Gatlinburg. Other fires flared up randomly throughout the city as winds toppled trees onto power lines, sending the electrically charged wires onto the drought-stricken ground.
A 6 p.m., Miller ordered the mandatory evacuation of Mynatt Park. At 6:27 p.m., the mandatory evacuation was extended to the East Foothills, Turkey Nest and Davenport roads areas.
At 6:30 p.m., Miller expanded his mutual aid request for firefighters statewide. About 200 firefighters flocked to the city to battle fires that a day earlier seemed to public safety officials beyond possibility. Despite the statewide plea for help, Miller was still two hours away issuing a citywide mandatory evacuation order.
“By 8 p.m., we had added the entire Ski Mountain area to the mandatory evacuation,” Miller said.
Miller noted when emergency workers went door to door to tell people of the mandatory evacuation, they “encountered many residents resistant to evacuation” and some “who refused” to leave their homes.
The chief said he ordered activation of the city’s 20-year-old emergency siren system twice to alert people of the evacuation. The system is in the downtown area and consists of four sirens with speakers. The speakers amplified a spoken message to anyone within earshot.
“Anyone who can hear this message, evacuate the area immediately,” the speakers blared.
Miller said the system was engaged twice between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene M. Teaster said her city’s first evacuation order was issued at 7:23 p.m. by Fire Chief Tony Watson. It was shared by sending police officers and firefighters door to door, she said.
“It’s the hardest way, but it’s the safest way,” she said. “Knowing what was happening in Gatlinburg, we wanted to protect our residents and visitors.”
Pigeon Forge’s evacuation order was expanded about 8 p.m. citywide, Teaster said. The only exception were the structures along the Parkway because Watson saw no danger of those buildings burning.
Teaster said fires in Upper Middle Creek and Wears Valley probably were ignited by power lines felled by toppled trees.
CodeRED not activated
Even with Miller’s decision at 8:30 p.m. to evacuate Gatlinburg, no one activated Sevier County’s CodeRED notification system.
The Sevier County website at www.seviercountytn.org contains a registration site for CodeRED, which offers several options for emergency notifications. Teri Friedler, director of marketing for Emergency Communication Network that sells the CodeRED service, said about 130 million people and businesses are registered in the United States.
Friedler did not know how many people in Sevier County had registered and how much the service costs the county. Costs of the service is determined by the population and various options selected.The computer program in Sevier County allows local officials to issue CodeRED alerts.
“I do not believe any alerts were issued regarding this fire,” she said.
Friedler said she expects to partner soon with Sevier County authorities to educate the public about the alert system and how to register for it.
“Until it happens, most of us don’t think of being registered for an emergency alert,” she said.
No mobile evacuation alert
When Miller did decide to evacuate the city, communications failed at the command post.
Miller said two Verizon cell towers failed after he asked Sevier County Emergency Management Director John Mathews to have TEMA issue the evacuation order through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).
IPAWS is a wireless alert system offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It sends text messages of up to 90 characters to mobile phones in a specified geographic area. Multiple messages can be sent if more than 90 characters is required. No matter the cellular provider or if the phone user is from another state, IPAWS vibrates the mobile phone and displays the text alert.
TEMA is one of 19 organizations in Tennessee authorized to send messages over IPAWS. Knox County, Loudon County, Crossville and Cumberland County, Cleveland and Bradley County, Hamilton County and Bristol E-911 Center in East Tennessee also are authorized to use IPAWS.
Miller said Mathews relayed to TEMA officials in the Nashville Emergency Operations Center the evacuation order. When TEMA called Mathews back for approval of the wording of the IPAWS alert, cellular communications were gone.
“Due to a communication failure, TEMA was unable to reach John Mathews to confirm the verbiage of the message and therefore the message was not sent,” Miller said.
TEMA officials in the EOC, however, should have had access to the $120 million statewide Motorola radio system used by several state agencies, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol. A Motorola radio should have been in the command post, but authorities have refused to address questions about why it was not employed with the loss of cellular service.
The communications failure also delayed a citywide evacuation announcement over televisions and radios. A representative of the National Weather Service tried to reach the command post to ask if the agency should activate the Emergency Alert System to issue an evacuation order.
Unable to reach the command center, the NWS employee called the Sevier County 911 Center to check on any evacuation orders. The 911 center manager confirmed the evacuation of Gatlinburg, prompting the weather service at 9:03 p.m. to activate the Emergency Alert System.
Another emergency alert option available to public safety officials are the Tennessee Department of Transportation overhead message boards that dot state highways and interstates. Interstate 40 and Interstate 81 are two routes used by motorists going to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
The message boards and the AM radio frequency are used by TDOT to convey urgent messages to travelers. Those devices could have been employed to alert drivers of the worsening conditions because of the wind-whipped wildfire, giving aspiring visitors the option of delaying the trip.
Mark Nagi, TDOT regional spokesman, said on Nov. 29-30 nine overhead message boards bore the text, “Heavy smoke and Fire in Pigeon Forge Area Use Caution.” Message boards on southbound I-81, westbound on I-40 at the I-40 and I-81 junction, and on I-40 and Interstate 75 coming out of Knoxville bore the alerts.
Nagi said Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson asked TEMA to activate the message boards. TDOT’s liaison with TEMA contacted the Traffic Management Center in Strawberry Plains to display the message.
Only mobile alert: Stay off devices
TEMA’s only use of IPAWS regarding the Gatlinburg firestorm occurred at 10:04 p.m. The text message asked users to stay off the devices unless there was an emergency.
One of those receiving that message was Colin Ickes, director of the Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency. Ickes had been asked about 7 p.m. by Mathews to bring the mobile command post used in the 16-county area to Gatlinburg to facilitate communications.
Ickes’ job was to coordinate communications among the dozens of fire departments that answered Miller’s calls for help. As he drove the mobile command post into the city about 10 p.m., he was greeted with an unsettling scene.
“There were miles of cars in the lanes going out, but very little traffic going into town,” Ickes said.
“It’s impossible to convey in words how massive and fast moving the fire was,” he said. “It was tragic.
“If I could snap my fingers and give them 10,000 firefighters, I don’t think the outcome would be any different. Fires were everywhere. Embers were everywhere.”
Paid notification service
Knox County also has a paid subscription emergency notification service that allows residents and visitors to register for alerts. Knox County uses Federal Signal, which also provides IPAWS access.
“It’s a great system,” Ickes said. “I really encourage people to sign up for it.”
People in Knox County can register at www.knoxcounty.org. Registration allows people the option of being alerted with a voice message on their landline, a text message on a mobile phone or an email. Ickes said Knox County Commission requested the service in 2014 that costs $17,666.24 annually. About 2,500 people have registered.
“We have never used it, but we have used it to pass along alerts from the National Weather Service,” Ickes said.
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