Emergency managers breakdown evacuation notification process Biddle Fire in Medford

MEDFORD, Ore. – With Sunday’s Fire causing stress, some people got an emergency alert in the area of that fire, but others didn’t. When a fire spreads quickly, city and county emergency managers work in concert with first responders to get a handle on each individual situation. But as we’ve obviously seen with the historic Almeda Fire, the situation can be quite chaotic.

The fire broke in the 3 o’clock hour. The first emergency alert was sent out at 5:04 p.m. But the alert was only sent to people in the evacuation zone who had previously signed up for it or who had a landline in the area. Many people with cell phones at the location, never got an alert.

Aaron Ott is the City of Medford’s Emergency Manager. Once Sunday’s fire broke out near Biddle Road, he was in communication with Medford’s Fire and Jackson County’s Office of Emergency Management on if they needed to alert people on evacuations. About an hour after the fire broke out, Ott said the winds picked up and changed directions. He made the call to Jackson County to issue a level 1 evacuation notice for people in MD1.

“When we do [evacuate] zones we’re doing that for a reason. One we want to impact those who [directly have] the most potential for threat. We also need to coordinate if there has to be an evacuation,” said Ott, “We were targeting a group of people to let them know we have this incident and to just make sure they had a plan put together”.

The alert was only sent to people registered with Citizen Alert who had an address within Zone 1.

The Citizen Alert software Everbridge was used has the capability to notify everyone in the area, not just the people who signed up previously. It can notify your cell phone based on the cell tower you’re using at the time. But Medford’s Emergency Manager didn’t ask Jackson County to use that function.

“We could utilize a WEA, but any decision for how we’re sending alerts is very situationally based,” said Holly Powers, Jackson County Emergency Manager, who told me the wireless emergency alert system was not needed in Sunday’s fire.

“In order to issue a WEA, it does need to have a certain threshold of life safety. So we usually reserve those most definitely for a level three,” said Powers.

But less than 24 hours after the fire began, Ott told NBC5 News it’s a tough call. Looking back, he thinks it may have been needed.

“We’re not even 24 hours post-incident is that we definitely need to incorporate the wireless activation. So the wireless emergency alert would have been a good function to activate,” said Ott.

But in a world where so much information is at your fingertips, the two emergency managers said social media is just one tool if you’re looking for evacuation information. People navigating social media just have to be careful about their source, and separating fact from fiction. In an emergency, many people don’t have time to separate the two.

The emergency managers said police go door to door in threatened areas and warn people. As you saw Ott said they are already looking back and evaluating how Sunday’s situation could have been improved.

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Katie Streit
NBC5 News reporter Katie Streit comes from her hometown, Las Vegas. Katie went to the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism & Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While in Las Vegas, Katie won a Student Emmy for her coverage of the Las Vegas Shooting Anniversary. She also hosted and produced the university's political news show, where she interviewed Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak and Congresswoman Dina Titus (NV-1). Her passion for politics turned into a coveted internship at the US Capitol in Washington D.C. In her final months working in the Las Vegas area, she was recognized for her journalism achievements by the Nevada Broadcaster's Foundation. Katie is excited to tell the stories of local Southern Oregonians and Northern Californians. Feel free to contact her at [email protected]