Emergency officials questioned over Almeda fire alerts
A dearth of broadcast evacuation warnings during the Almeda fire prompted new scrutiny on the emergency response, but Jackson County officials say it’s too soon to determine whether the system used in evacuations was a good or bad call.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler and Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial were peppered with questions Wednesday surrounding a purported lack of emergency broadcast alerts on radio and television while the Almeda fire first raged through Phoenix and Talent some eight days ago.
Instead, the county used its Citizen Alert Emergency Notification System, a system provided by a vendor known as Everbridge that has the capability to contact people in specific neighborhoods using residents’ landlines, and smartphones of residents who opted-in to text and mobile phone alerts by registering with the county.
Vial said he plans to do a “thorough debrief” assessing what worked and what didn’t during the fire “as soon as this emergency’s over.” Right now, however, portions of the Almeda and South Obenchain fires are still “very active” and under evacuation.
There are 83,226 land line phone numbers automatically enrolled in the Everbridge system, and 54,246 mobile phone users that have enrolled in the system, according to Vial, who is Jackson County’s roads director who was appointed as director of the county’s Emergency Operations Center the day of the Almeda fire.
Vial said 41,911 of the residents enrolled in the alert system at least one day after the Almeda fire broke.
The county has used the system since at least 2015, according to archived news releases about the notification system.
Compounding issues with Everbridge, according to Vial, is that the county’s evacuation system involves multiple agencies and this was a fire that moved at “light speed” and involved far more law enforcement agencies than usual.
Only law enforcement such as a city’s police chief or the county sheriff outside city limits can order evacuations. Police, however, draw from fire officials to recommend areas to evacuate and review the request.
“Maps are produced, a narrative is written and the alert is sent out,” Vial said.
The fast-spreading Almeda fire, however, involved five different law enforcement agencies: Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, and Medford along with the sheriff’s office.
Three people have died in the Almeda fire and five people are still missing; however, Sickler said none are “critically missing.”
Sickler described the Everbridge’s ability to target specific neighborhoods as a strength. He said the roads in the area couldn’t handle the strain a generalized broadcast alert could have risked.
“Any additional pressure on those roadway systems, according to my staff on the ground, would have not been good whatsoever,” Sickler said.
Sickler said the “countless stories” he’s heard of police officers and firefighters breaking through to personally evacuate residents is a greater success than any shortfalls in electronic alerts.
“To me that’s the best alert you can get is when somebody is pulling you from a burning building and saving your life,” Sickler said.