It is essential to have an emergency mass communication strategy



Five years ago, one November evening, Tennessee firefighters called about a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg. A few days later, strong winds pushed the fire into the park’s chimneys picnic area, uncontrollably.

Today, the Chimney Tops 2 fire is considered one of the most devastating fires in state history. The reception of cell phones broke down. The area’s 9-1-1 system could not handle the call load. It caused damage estimated at $ 2 billion – more than 17,000 acres were burned and 14 people died.

For emergency responders in Sevier County, where the wildfire broke out, it was “a unique event that we had never seen before – with the scale of the disaster and the damage it caused, ”recalled Joe Ayers, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency. “Communication is very important at these events. This is one of the lessons we have learned.

At the time, around 1,000 residents were registered with the county’s emergency messaging system, or 1% of the region’s population, according to Ayers, who spoke in a webinar Tuesday: “Your agency is- is it ready for the next crisis or crises? Fast and efficient critical communications are the first step ”, hosted by US city and county. Given the county’s limited reach at the time, when evacuation orders were issued, “we had to rely on the state to send alerts” through the built-in public alert and warning system. FEMA (which can override communication networks and send mass alerts).

Since then, Ayers said the county has been working hard to connect with its residents ahead of the next emergency incident.

“We have stepped up our marketing campaign, speaking at special events, setting up booths,” Ayers said, noting that those who chose to receive county wide alerts went “from 1 000 people to over 11,000 “. The number of emergency alert subscribers in Sevier County is well above the national average, according to Troy Harper, webinar moderator and director of government strategy at OnSolve, a critical communications provider based in Florida, who has sponsored the webinar.

In the past year, the United States “has experienced a record 22 weather-related natural disasters that have killed 262 people and injured dozens more,” Harper continued, noting tornado outbreaks, droughts , heat waves, forest fires, tropical storms and floods. In 2020, weather and climate events caused $ 95 billion in damage. Faced with this increase in natural disasters, Harper said regional leaders should regularly test their communications systems in a controlled environment.

“Preparation begins and ends with quick and effective communication,” he said. “It’s a public safety tool, so we have to train with it like it’s real. “

Disasters do not recognize political or geographic boundaries, said Harper, making a regional communications strategy the most effective. Mass communication protocols should be considered during pre-planning, and text templates should be created for different scenarios, with a designated person to send alerts if necessary.

In the early stages of an emergency, while still evolving rapidly, Harper stressed the importance of getting the word out as quickly as possible and following up later in more detail.

“Get that initial message across whether you have all the information or not,” he said. “He doesn’t have to be perfect. It must be quick. “

In the 2016 Tennessee fire, “we lost cell service for the city of Gatlinburg,” Ayers said, noting responders could talk to each other over radios, stressing the importance of redundancy.

In addition to providing updates, notification systems can promote rescue services, distribute to give responders a better understanding of damage, and help connect those in need with help.

“Volunteer organizations come into communities during disasters, but sometimes it is difficult to connect people who want to help with those who need it,” Ayers said. “This is where (stakeholders) can disseminate information on how people in need can connect with volunteer organizations. “

In 2019, Ayers said Tennessee partnered with Crisis Cleanup, a collaborative website that connects people in need with help. In order to anticipate the next emergency, Ayers said his department is working to create more templates that can be sent out at any time.

Regular tests should be sent so that the public gets used to the alerts and the responders know exactly what to do.

“One of the hardest things is that it feels like you’re pushing a button for a nuclear missile,” Ayers said. The more often you send messages, the easier it is to send.


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