GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – The National Weather Service says it never sent any alerts about the Gatlinburg wildfire evacuations to mobile phone users because evacuations are not included in the Wireless Emergency Alerts system.
Some residents told WATE they didn’t receive the alert on their mobile devices and others said it was broadcast after the fire had reached the city.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website indicates that the wireless alert system can be used for weather emergencies, AMBER Alerts and presidential alerts during a national emergency. Anthony Cavallucci, NWS spokesman, says the Emergency Alert System was activated, which sent messages to NOAA weather radios, TV stations and designated EAS-participating radio stations.
Officials said during Friday morning’s press conference it was their understanding that an evacuation message went out to all mobile users in Gatlinburg.
“We sent out a notification to the mobile devices – I believe the time stamp is 9:04 p.m. – to evacuate the city,” said John Matthews with the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency. “Any mobile device that was connected to any cell phone tower in this city would have received this message.”
Matthews said anyone who didn’t get the message was likely because of power outages or lost cell phone reception and the alert was sent as soon as they were aware of the magnitude of the fire.
“Two fireman knocked on the door with yellow coats on. They told me I had to evacuate now, because the wind gust was going so fast they had to get everyone out,” said Gatlinburg resident Brenda Reimer.
She said she got out with only the clothes on her back and there was one escape route. Reimer went on to say there were no directions from police across the way.
“They didn’t tell me that you could come up to Rocky Top to shelter or anything, so I headed to Newport and that road was terrible… trees across the road and everything,” said Reimer.
Sevier County officials say they plan to scrutinize their emergency alert system and what can be done to improve it.
“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,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
WATE 6 On Your Side has reached out to Sevier County EMA Director John Matthews and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director Dean Flener for comment.