Sevier County emergency alerts require enrollment - WSMV News 4

Sevier County emergency alerts require enrollment

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(WSMV file) (WSMV file)

Hundreds of people fled their burning homes in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday as a mandatory evacuation was put into place.

But some property owners are starting to question the way they were notified, and why it didn’t happen sooner.

Sevier County uses a notification system designed for emergencies — times when they need to reach as many people as possible — but some people said they never knew this system existed.

As the flames encroached, many residents started fleeing. Troopers, firefighters and volunteers helped to transport neighbors to safety.

But some people expressed frustration over the notice they didn’t receive.

“No warning, nothing,” said Michael Luciano, who released video of his escape from Chalet Village on Monday night.

Other evacuees, like Phyllis Seidel, said they grappled with when to leave.

“I had called the police earlier in the day and asked, ‘Is somebody going to tell us when we need to leave?’ She said we’ll do a reverse 911 if you have a house phone, which I do, so when somebody started banging on the door I was surprised,” Seidel said. “But I came to the door and he said, ‘Are you packing up to leave?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to.’”

So how do these reverse 911 calls work?

Sevier County EMA controls a notification system called Code Red, according to Misty McGill, with Sevier County E911.

In an email, McGill said each department’s chief also has control of Code Red.

Code Red is a service offered by Emergency Communications Network, a Florida-based company that contracts with the county.

The platform allows governments or jurisdictions to send alerts to their citizens.

“Examples include evacuation notices, bio-terrorism alerts, boil water notices and missing child reports,” the website reads.

But to receive alerts, people must sign up for them. They must provide information such as their phone numbers and email addresses.

Jeff Burkhart, a Clarksville city councilman, rents out three properties in Gatlinburg. He said at least one home burned to the ground.

Burkhart said he has owned the properties in Gatlinburg for at least 10 years, but he never knew such a notification system existed for either he or his guests.

“Anything would be great to get the word out,” Burkhart said.

Another cabin owner of 20 years said he, too, has never heard of such a system.

The service is publicized on the website for Sevier County, providing a link where people can enroll.

Right now, it’s unclear if Code Red is the county’s only method of emergency notification via telephone or Internet.

But Burkhart said it's an important tool people need to know it exists.

“Some kind of system like that would have been a lifesaver for several people,” he said.

The Channel 4 I-Team requested the number of people in the database, as well as the number of notifications sent on Monday.

A spokeswoman for ECN said landlines are not the most effective way to deliver the messages. She said alerts through cell phones or emails tend to work better.

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