Preparedness & Recovery

Gatlinburg Wildfire Records Tell Story of Chaos, Confusion

Police officers, firefighters, rescue squad volunteers and dispatchers found themselves cut off from each other, trying to direct the battle against East Tennessee’s worst fire of the 21st century.

by Matt Lakin and Don Jacobs, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. / August 10, 2017
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(TNS) — Everything failed in an instant.

Severed lines snuffed out power to the command center directing the emergency response to the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires the night of Nov. 28 and plunged firefighting and rescue efforts into darkness and chaos.

Sevier County began releasing records Wednesday documenting the confusion caused by the collapse of communications systems as fire swept into the city.

Records released earlier by Pigeon Forge and Sevierville — from E-911 calls to radio traffic — also show how those agencies struggled frantically to protect their communities and help save Gatlinburg while blinded, hobbled and struck deaf by one critical system failure after another.

High winds and roaring flames about 8:30 p.m. disabled cell towers, melted fiber-optic cables, disrupted digital radio signals and shut down phone lines. Backup systems and protocols failed. With more than 1,000 radios on Sevier County's 10-channel Kenwood emergency radio system, police, fire and rescue messages choked the system with a flood of traffic.

Police officers, firefighters, rescue squad volunteers and dispatchers found themselves cut off from each other, trying to direct the battle against East Tennessee’s worst fire of the 21st century with little more than Stone Age communication technology. Word of mouth was the only thing left in some cases.

Neighboring cities couldn’t be sure where to send mutual aid. Authorities in Nashville couldn’t get a handle on how to coordinate the statewide response.

Callers to Sevier County's E-911 Center so overloaded the system, their pleas for help ended up at the Putnam County E-911 Center in Cookeville, 150 miles away, said John Mathews, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency.

Other calls rolled over to Sevierville Fire Department stations.

Mathews said the E-911 Center's telephone provider still can't explain how emergency calls were routed to Putnam County in Middle Tennessee. It's the first time in memory, he said, that E-911 calls somehow rolled over to Sevierville fire stations.

“We can’t talk to Gatlinburg,” a Pigeon Forge Police Department dispatcher complained about 11 p.m. “They’ve got nothing.”

Even the state’s top E-911 technology guru couldn’t find a solution.

"Is Gatlinburg going to be able to evacuate?" Eddie Burchell, chief of technology for the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, asked a Pigeon Forge dispatcher at 9:42 p.m.

The near-total blackout cost precious time in targeting first responders to the erupting fires, spread confusion among residents and visitors, and undermined efforts to send a mobile evacuation alert. Tennessee Emergency Management officials said sending a bare-bones evacuation notice via text message over the state Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, with no concrete details from responders on the ground would have created a panic and done more harm than good.

“So much was happening so fast,” said Patrick Sheehan, TEMA director. “We were getting conflicting reports. Our liaison was on his way to the scene and stuck in traffic on (U.S.) Highway 321 (outside town). At some point, the news stations told us there was a mandatory evacuation. We tried to re-establish contact with Sevier County. Every redundant system we had in place for a period of time was not working.”

Sheehan said TEMA's channel on the $120 million statewide Motorola radio system couldn't maintain a connection with the emergency team in Gatlinburg. Even ham radio systems weren't available, Sheehan said.

The fire had burned for nearly a week inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the remote Chimney Tops Trail when winds that approached 90 mph sent the flames coursing through Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge and Sevier County around 6 p.m. on Nov. 28. Burning debris and toppled power lines started at least 20 fires in the space of a quarter-hour, officials said, and raged throughout the night into the next day. Fourteen people died, nearly 200 suffered various injuries, and nearly 2,500 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Authorities have placed the final recovery estimate at roughly $1 billion.

TEMA officials didn’t know the downed power lines had shut down Gatlinburg’s emergency operations center and dispatch system. The city's dispatchers relied at the time on an internet-based phone system with no backup in place, Police Chief Randy Brackins said.

“When the computers are off, the system’s off,” he said. "It was down at least a couple of days. The radio service was so busy, we had to try to communicate by cellphone.”

Sevier County's central dispatch operates out of the E-911 center in Sevierville. That's where the first calls came in about fires erupting throughout Gatlinburg. Either from downed electrical lines or embers described "as large as a football" from the National Park wildfire, the fires were spreading.

Normally, Mathews said, the E-911 center determines the emergency and sends the call along. If it's a police matter in Pigeon Forge, Sevierville or Gatlinburg, the call would be switched to that agency's radio dispatcher.

All fire and medical calls remain in the E-911 center and become the responsibility of central dispatch. Mathews said four or five dispatchers handle those calls, sending fire engines from Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge or a volunteer agency to reported fires.

Once firefighters arrive at a scene, fire commanders take charge of the personnel and radio communications.

Clogged airwaves and crippled cell towers made for hit-or-miss coverage. High winds disrupted the digital network relied on by TEMA’s statewide radio system, Sheehan said.

Sheehan finally reached Mathews by cell and offered to send an evacuation alert to every cellphone in the area — but not without Mathews’ direction and approval.

“We can’t just say, ‘Evacuate.’ That would be irresponsible,” Sheehan said. “We don’t know whether there are trees or power lines across which roads.”

Sheehan and TEMA spokesman Dean Flener drafted an alert, recommending Highway 321 as an evacuation route and directing anyone in Gatlinburg to one of the emergency shelters set up nearby. That alert never went out.

TEMA and Sevier County had lost contact again. Without Mathews’ approval, no message would be sent.

“At this point, I have an unverified message,” Flener said. “I need to make sure the message is accurate. We didn’t have the information to send (an alert) that was accurate, so we didn’t.”

The only text alert from TEMA that reached anyone was a notice sent hours after the fire began, asking residents to stay off their cellphones. Flener said that request helped and seemed to open cellphone access for emergency personnel.

On the ground in Sevier County, word of the evacuation spread slowly. Officials about 8 p.m. activated downtown Gatlinburg’s siren warning system and broadcast news of the evacuation on TV and radio, but not everyone got the message. Calls jammed dispatch centers outside Gatlinburg as residents and tourists tried to find out whether they should flee the approaching blaze.

“I’d stay vigilant throughout the night,” a Sevierville dispatcher told one caller.

Fire crews couldn’t reach utility companies to shut off power grids. Pigeon Forge at one point resorted to dispatching officers by text message to assist with evacuating homes and campgrounds.

Pigeon Forge firefighters relied on the Kenwood radio system. Pigeon Forge police used a Motorola 700 megahertz radio system. Neither system fared well.

Some officers wound up calling their dispatchers with cellphones to find out where other officers were.

Some residents didn’t want to leave. One man called Pigeon Forge dispatchers to insist he could fight off the flames with his garden hose. A woman asked what would happen if she ignored the evacuation order.

“You need to leave,” came the reply.

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