Gatlinburg, Tenn., Officials to Review Early Warning System, Tech

A recent tragedy in East Tennessee is a reminder of the need to review plans and protocols for inevitable emergencies.

by Linda A. Moore, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) / December 9, 2016
AP/Jonathan Mattise

(TNS) - Days after wildfire ravaged Gatlinburg, Tenn., along with hundreds of acres in the surrounding mountainside, some residents and visitors to the area said they did not receive early warnings about the approaching fire, which has claimed 14 lives, including a couple from Memphis.

The Mid-South is not immune to the threat or reality of disaster and officials in Memphis and Shelby County say the tragedy in East Tennessee is a reminder of the need to review plans and protocols for inevitable emergencies.

"We’re not managing by crisis," said Dale Lane, director of the Office of Preparedness. "Part of our job is to constantly review and when things are happening around the country, to look at best practices and for gaps."

It's because of the East Tennessee fires that Lane was asked to make sure the community's systems are in place and working, county Mayor Mark Luttrell said.

"We don’t have any reason to believe they’re not, but anytime you have an event like that in Gatlinburg, it's really an alert for all of us to go back and check our first responder and emergency systems," Luttrell said.

"Our team at the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management will work jointly with Shelby County officials to ensure there will be a coordinated response," said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Residents can get emergency notifications by activating their smartphones in the same way the state sends out Amber Alerts for missing children or the National Weather Service advises of weather watches and warnings, Lane said.

He also recommends the ReadyTN app for emergency preparedness.

In addition to pushing information through the local news outlets and social media, Lane said, Shelby County is also part of a national Integrated Public Alert Warning (IPAWS) system that gets messages out to communities.

Even though emergency management officials work diligently to prepare for disasters, citizens can't be complacent about their own safety and must do their part to receive the information, said Memphis Fire Director Gina Sweat.

For example, whenever she talks to groups about the importance of working smoke detectors, there are always people without them.

"Until it actually affects you personally, sometimes people don’t heed these warnings seriously," Sweat said.

The public has to help by taking responsibility for their safety, paying attention to the notices and being cognizant of what's happening around them, she said.

"And by all means follow instructions, especially when something catastrophic has happened," Sweat said. "That’s when it's really important. Pay attention and follow instructions."

Lately, Lane said, Shelby County has been lucky, with tornado systems that skipped over the county.

Even the floods of recent years have provided an opportunity for improvements when alerting citizens, he said.

"One of things that helped us in the flood is we now have a very robust GIS ( geographic information system) mapping platform of homes that were flooded," Lane said. "Back in January when this started happening we were able to give people in high water areas notifications, sometimes as much as 48 hours out."

Additionally, the county and municipalities have in total more than 150 emergency sirens that can alert residents to an emergency.

"We just want to make sure that our critical systems are in place and backed up," Lane said. "We try to stay in a constant state of readiness."

Meanwhile, investigators in East Tennessee have been determined that the fires there were "human-caused" and two teenagers were charged in Sevier County with aggravated arson.

Among those killed were Jon and Janet Summers of Memphis, who were in Gatlinburg with their three adult sons for a birthday celebration.

©2016 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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