Gatlinburg wildfire emergency recordings lost; fire survivors outraged

(Courtesy: WATE)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says it has lost recordings of all but three phone calls made to its Emergency Operations Center on November 28, the night of the deadly wildfires in Sevier County and Gatlinburg.

TEMA spokesman Dean Flener says its recording system may have overloaded as a result of the large volume of calls to the center that night. TEMA employed a third-party data forensics firm to determine what happened to the recordings, which pointed to a disk space issue.

There is a finite amount of storage in the system.  As the system runs out of storage, the oldest calls are deleted to make room for newer calls.  It follows then, that the system preserved calls from Nov. 29, 2016, onward because the system was no longer overloaded,” said Flener.

Additionally, the phone system’s automatic backup system had been failing since October and a manual backup was not performed until December 8. By that time, most of the November 28 calls had already been purged from the system.

TEMA says the calls would have involved the coordination of state assets, personnel and resources; management and fulfillment of local resource requests for state assistance, like cadaver dogs; sharing of information with local, state and federal partners; supporting shelter missions and human needs; and providing donations management and logistical support.

Forensic Examiner Charles Snipes said in a letter that he determined there were no malicious or intentional deletions and that the problem was just a storage issue. TEMA says it is looking at ways to prevent this from happening in the future.

More online: Read Snipes’ letter [PDF]

Meanwhile, a group of wildfire survivors are voicing outrage at the loss of the calls.They allege “what appears to be another cover-up or mishap by government officials.” The Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group says they have received few answers about why they say Gatlinburg and Sevier County didn’t follow emergency management plans or what’s being done to further protect residents in the future.

At a news conference Friday, the group demanded the resignation of TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, saying there were failures on multiple levels.

“Why did TEMA take more than eight months to tell us they failed us?” they asked.

Fourteen people have been confirmed dead in the fires and approximately $1 billion in damage was done to property.