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County must examine alert policies

In the wake of last week’s devastating fire that started in Ashland and swept through Talent and Phoenix, residents are asking why information about the fires and the resulting evacuations was so hard to come by. County officials say they will examine the official response “when this emergency is over.” Fair enough, but the questions must be answered, sooner rather than later.

It’s clear the county’s chosen system for notifying residents who needed to evacuate was not up to the task for a variety of reasons.

The county uses a system provided by Everbridge, which was set up in 2011 after the fast-moving Oak Knoll fire destroyed 11 homes in August 2010. The previous “reverse 911” system relied on dispatchers to call residents in an affected area to warn them, but it did not perform well when dispatchers did not have contact information for everyone in the neighborhood.

The Everbridge system automatically calls landlines, but many people rely on cellphones instead. Cellphone users must “opt in” by entering their numbers and signing up to be notified. That’s fine if everyone does that, but the county has not been diligent about promoting the system and encouraging people to sign up.

The other weakness in the Everbridge system is that cellphones may not work reliably in a disaster that damages cell towers. In that case, a network of sirens could prove useful, such as the system in place on the coast to issue tsunami warnings.

The other question that must be answered is why officials chose not to activate the Emergency Alert System, which interrupts all broadcast TV, cable and radio channels at the order of the county or the State Police.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler said a county-wide alert could have caused more problems than it solved if people responded by leaving their homes when they did not have to, clogging escape routes for those who needed to evacuate and hindering access by emergency vehicles.

That explanation is less than reassuring. There is no reason why a county-wide alert could not have clearly explained that only people in the affected areas should leave, and everyone else should stay where they were to avoid traffic jams. In the absence of any information at all, people may leave their homes when they shouldn’t and make the situation worse.

It’s great to be able to target alerts to specific neighborhoods, but only if everyone who needs to get those alerts receives them. It’s clear that didn’t happen in this case.

Most troubling is the possibility that lives may have been lost because people did not get notified in time to evacuate. That will likely never be known for sure, but the very possibility ought to motivate county officials to do everything in their power to improve the notification system and the policies for using it before the next emergency occurs.

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