EDITORIAL: Disaster alert system depends on everyone

·3 min read

Jun. 10—A consultant's report on the official response to the Almeda and South Obenchain fires largely confirmed what everyone who lived through the disasters already knew: firefighters and other first responders did a tremendous job under trying circumstances, helping prevent loss of life and stopping the Almeda fire before it reached Medford. But the notification system, such as it was, failed residents of Phoenix and Talent.

The report's findings are detailed in a front-page story in Sunday's Mail Tribune. On Wednesday, another story reported on efforts by local cities to create evacuation zones so notifications and evacuations can be accomplished in a more orderly fashion in future disasters.

The report on the Sept. 8, 2020, fires is the result of months of work by Innovative Emergency Management, a North Carolina disaster and crisis management firm commissioned by Jackson County to evaluate the official response to the fires. Representatives of the firm interviewed more than 50 people from 29 agencies including firefighters, police, dispatchers and other city and county workers.

The report's conclusions describe an emergency management system that was overwhelmed in the early moments of the disaster. The county's Emergency Manager had too many responsibilities to focus on issuing emergency notifications. And only two people were trained and had access to the Citizen Alert System — one in Jackson County and one in Josephine County.

Phoenix and Talent officials did not request alerts, and even if they had, the Citizen Alert system goes to landlines unless people have opted in to receiving alerts by cellphone, text message and email.

The separate Emergency Alert System uses television and radio stations, but cannot be targeted to specific areas. That system was not activated for fear of prompting massive evacuations where they were not necessary, clogging already congested escape routes.

As it was, roads were overwhelmed, in part because the fire closed Interstate 5, diverting freeway traffic onto Highway 99. The report's authors recommend including the Oregon Department of Transportation early on during an incident at the emergency operations center.

Another key finding was that the public was calling 911 dispatchers for information on what they should do, but dispatchers had limited or inaccurate information to provide. A citizen hotline was activated more than two hours after the Almeda fire was first reported, but managers did not always have accurate updates to giver callers.

The overwhelming message in all of this is that communicating accurate, up-to-date information to the public is vitally important, and was a principle failing on Sept. 8. But part of the responsibility for preparing for the next disaster lies with citizens.

Cities can prepare detailed evacuation plans, zone maps and checklists for what to take with you if you must evacuate. But residents must familiarize themselves with those plans, know what zone they live in and what evacuation route to take. And they must sign up ahead of time to receive text message, cellphone and email alerts. Waiting until a fire breaks out won't do any good.

Medford's zone maps showing evacuation routes are online now at MedfordOregon.gov/BePrepared. Ashland's page is at ashland.or.us/evacuate.

Phoenix and Talent are still working on their plans, but expect them to be available in the coming weeks. Other cities in the county also have plans in the works.

When your community's plan is available, go there, familiarize yourself with the information for your zone, and be prepared now, not after the next fire breaks out.