Sevier Co. Emergency Management director to resign - WSMV News 4

Sevier Co. Emergency Management director to resign

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Fourteen people were killed in the wildfires last November. (WSMV) Fourteen people were killed in the wildfires last November. (WSMV)

The man who was in charge of Sevier County’s emergency management during the fatal Gatlinburg wildfires is stepping down.

John Mathews served as EMA director during the firestorm that claimed the lives of 14 people last year.

He confirmed to News 4 he’ll be leaving his post Aug.18 to join a company partly owned by Sevier County Commissioner Mary Davis.

Mathews will join the construction company D&S Builders as chief operating officer, a move he said shocked his colleagues in emergency services.

“I was extremely hesitant about leaving before I could help recover and rebuild Sevier County,” Mathews said in a phone interview Friday.

Mathews said he submitted his resignation letter July 23, less than a month after he had been promoted to the role of Assistant Mayor over Emergency Services.

Next week, officials with Sevier County and the City of Gatlinburg intend to release all public records, including 911 calls, related to the wildfires and the ensuing emergency response. The News 4 I-Team filed numerous open records requests back in November and December.

A judge recently ruled those records must be released to the public.

Mathews said his departure has absolutely nothing to do with the information that will be released next week.

“I’m not worried one bit about what’s going to get released,” Mathews said.

Mathews served in his role as EMA director for eight years. His career in emergency services spans 13 years.

An organization known as the Gatlinburg Wildfires Survivors Group released a statement Friday, applauding Mathews’ resignation.

The group states Mathews and other government officials should have done more to warn people about the impending firestorm.

Last December emergency officials confirmed a text message alert was never sent to residents to evacuate.

“Matthews [sic] was responsible for the safety and well-being of an estimated 14,000 residents and visitors of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on that dreadful day,” the statement reads.

Mathews contends leaders did everything they could to help the community.

“It was an unprecedented event. It was a fire that basically exploded,” he said.

Sevier County and the City of Gatlinburg have already moved toward improving their emergency notification systems.

Five new sirens were installed throughout Gatlinburg back in May. Mathews said at least nine other sirens will be placed throughout the county. The first fourteen sirens will cost approximately $775,000.

The outgoing director said the county also hopes to one day install sirens at each of the area’s 28 schools.

The siren systems rotate on a pole, allowing messages to be broadcast to the surrounding areas.

The system will let people know about everything from severe weather to evacuation alerts.

Leaders also invested resources in two systems that can deliver notifications directly to people’s mobile devices.

Sevier County expanded its services with CODERED, a company that sends automated alerts and calls to people who subscribe to receive notifications.

Mathews said now every fire department and police department in the county has the capability to send warnings.

An Internet-based program known as IPAWS sends warnings to mobile devices, regardless of whether users sign up for service.

Many victims in the Gatlinburg wildfires were visitors and encountered difficulty escaping.

That’s why Mathews said pamphlets and brochures will also be placed in rental properties, outlining what to do when emergency strikes.

Road signs on mountain back roads will also be updated to help aid navigation.

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