County defends decision to not use mass emergency alert system for Almeda fire

CENTRAL POINT, Ore. – Jackson County responded to questions about why it chose not to send out a mass county-wide ’emergency alert’ during the fatal Almeda fire. Commissioner Rick Dyer told NBC5, he’s been asking the same question. Last night, Sheriff Nathan Sickler responded to NBC5’s inquiries with a statement.

Wednesday afternoon, both he and the county’s head of the emergency operations center took questions. The Emergency Alert System interrupts all broadcast TV and cable channels, as well as radio stations locally, when Jackson County or Oregon State Police activate it. Broadcasters cannot activate it without approval.

“To me, that’s the best alert you can get, when somebody is pulling you from a burning building and saving your life,” said Sheriff Sickler during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. Both he and the county Emergency Operations Center head John Vial said there’s a lot the county can learn about what did and didn’t work last week. But that time, they say, isn’t here yet.

“The alert system will be a conversation, I guess as we move forward,”  said Sheriff Sickler. The men are defending the county’s use of it’s citizen alert notification system because it can warn people in a specific area, like Talent and Phoenix, as opposed to the whole county.

The Sheriff says warning that many people, could have had adverse effects. “Not having our roadways completely gridlocked so emergency responders could get in and get people out certainly seems like a benefit to our public today,” explaines Sheriff Sickler.

Head of the Emergency Operations Center, John Vial says the emergency manager, Stacey Anderson-Belt and the board of   commissioners are in charge of choosing what alert system to use.

“If there’s multiple platforms that reach people in different ways then in a debrief that is a critical question that needs to be answered,” said Vial. He claimed other cities have been criticized for using the EAS,  because most people get their information from their phones.

But the county’s citizen alert program, through Everbridge, only works if you have a land line, or sign up for it. In Lane and Linn Counties, their EAS was used nearly three dozen times last week for fire evacuation notices. “In order to say did we do the right thing on this fire or not? We need to sit down and evaluate the systems and everything else,” said Vial.

As for when a debrief will occur, Vial said it will happen”when this emergency is over.” NBC5 reached out to emergency manager Stacey Anderson-Belt for comment. She has not returned our email.

According to numbers sent to us from the county, 41,000 new people signed up for the alert system in Jackson and Josephine Counties since last Wednesday. Vial said in an email to NBC5 late today that there’s no way to break down those numbers by county right now.

NBC5 asked him how many people were signed up for the alerts before last week. He said “we can’t tell right now.”

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