MEDFORD, Ore. – NBC5 News was the first news organization to ask county officials why the emergency alert system was never used during the Almeda fire. Both Sheriff Nathan Sickler and John Vial with the Emergency Operations Center have defended the county’s use of it’s citizen alert notification system because it can warn people in a specific area as opposed to the whole county.
Through a public records request, NBC5 News uncovered exactly what warnings were sent to Jackson County residents on September 8th. We learned Talent never received an evacuation alert at all.
“It was pretty chaotic, it was pretty hard to figure out where the fire was,” said Sheriff Nathan Sickler with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. September 8th was a day first responders in Jackson County will likely never forget. Fires raged across Jackson County from Ashland to Eagle Point, stretching resources thin.
“The Almeda fire was changing so rapidly those things were strained,” said Sheriff Sickler. The heroism displayed by first responders can’t be discounted. They knocked on doors, pulled people from buildings, and saved lives. “It moved at such a rate that it was almost impossible to stay in front of for evacuations,” said Sheriff Sickler.
But Jackson County’s emergency manager never used a county-wide EAS alert. Instead choosing targeted alerts through the Everbridge system, which only works if you have a land line or sign up for it.
The first alert was sent out at 11:52 a.m.
It was an evacuation notice for several blocks around where the Almeda fire started and sent to 198 phone numbers in Ashland.
Just before 3 p.m., the first alert for the fast growing South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point was sent as a Level 3 evacuation ordered by the Sheriff’s office.
“It was a pretty crazy day,” said Sheriff Sickler.
After a 4 hour gap between Almeda fire alerts, at 4:01 p-m a ‘request’ is sent through the Everbridge system.
It said the Jackson County Sheriff is requesting that all residents stay home unless under evacuation notice. People are asked to avoid Ashland, Talent and Phoenix. Jackson County says over 110,000 phone lines were sent this message.
At 5 p.m., five hours after the last Almeda fire evacuation notice, a new alert is sent out.
It’s a new evacuation notice for all businesses and residents in Phoenix. Just under 7,000 phone lines are sent this notice.
The city of Talent is never issued an evacuation alert. “I can’t speak as to why talent didn’t get an alert specifically,” said Sheriff Sickler.
At 6:52 p-m, Medford Police and JCSO issue a Level 3 evacuation for all of Phoenix and South Medford – through the alert system.
Then at 7:30, it’s used to issue a level 2 evacuation notice for parts of South Medford.
It’s sent to over 31 thousand phones.
The last alerts of the night are issued for Central Point at 9:42 p.m. as a Level 3 evacuation.
It was cancelled an hour later. All of the Everbridge evacuation alerts were sent by the Jackson County emergency manager Stacey Anderson-Belt.
We’ve requested multiple interviews with Belt since the fires. On Thursday afternoon she sent us this statement:
Most evacuations were coordinated and specific to the fire behavior, and responders on the ground conducted those evacuations. Decisions about notices are based on multiple factors, and no single individual makes them. We will have an opportunity, post-disaster, to evaluate any gaps that may be associated with the alert system. To do so requires a more in-depth, independent review of all factors that go into making those determinations.
In this incident, multiple agencies were involved at the law enforcement level and fire level, and all inputs will be reviewed. As you can imagine, in any disaster, communication is always one of the most common post incident discussions. At this time, Emergency Management is focused on the immediate, interim, and long-term needs of the impacted families, individuals, and businesses of Jackson County, from the Obenchain to the Almeda fire. Learning what was done well and what could have gone better will be a great learning asset for our community. I know people are hurting and upset and looking for answers. While we were doing everything we could to help, we know our performance may have fallen short of public expectations during this unprecedented fire event. And, we are working hard to help our citizens recovery as we move forward.
Sheriff Sickler said, “I don’t know about the process to do the alerts, that’s not my process… The information comes from the field, goes up the chain of command, then it gets distributed to emergency management to be distributed throughout the community.
Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said in a statement:
We will be hiring an independent third party to perform a complete review of the entire emergency response process. This will entail extensive interviews with law enforcement, fire personnel, emergency operations staff and many others. Many of these individuals are still actively engaged in response and emergency operations activities due to the active fire still present in the county. We will communicate the findings and any deliberate on any necessary policy changes when the review is complete. We understand and share the community’s desire and need for full disclosure on all aspects of emergency response including decisions made regarding emergency announcements made and not made.
Three people died in the Almeda fire, however none of the alerts sent out by the emergency manager were deemed life threatening. The county tells us just under 21,000 people were signed up for the alerts before September 1. After September 1, more than 33,000 residents have signed up. To put that in perspective, roughly 203,000 people live in Jackson County, according to the most recent census data from 2010.
Why the ‘Emergency Alert System’ which notifies everyone in the county through TV, cable and radio wasn’t used is a question NBC5 News began asking almost immediately after the Almeda fire raged through the Rogue Valley.
Broadcasters can’t activate it and alert viewers without approval. 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.
Lane and Linn County used their EAS system nearly three dozen times in one week, in early September, for fire evacuation notices. In Jackson County it was never used for the Almeda or South Obenchain fires and their multiple Level 3 evacuation notices, leaving many wondering why.