Documents highlight communication problems while fighting wildfi - WSMV News 4

Documents highlight communication problems while fighting wildfires

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The documents include newly released photos of the aftermath. (WSMV) The documents include newly released photos of the aftermath. (WSMV)

Newly released documents from the Tennessee Agriculture Department illuminate obstacles faced by emergency workers fighting the East Tennessee wildfires during the fall of 2016.

Communications problems were the largest safety concern of some in state government, who offered their opinions in after-action reports in the months following the deadly fires.

Among the challenges – they cited a lack of communication on the fire line, radio channels not being provided to all crews, and problems with some people who didn't understand radio programming.

Other employees wrote that resources to fight the fire from the air were limited because federal and state agencies were on different radio systems.

Communications problems during a disaster aren't new. During the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, crews on different radio systems couldn't talk to each other.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report that in the years since 9/11, taxpayers have spent as much as $47 billion on an advanced broadband network that was supposed to improve communications for first responders.

So why, all these years later, is there still a communications problem?

Colonel Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Department of Safety said Tennessee has spent $125 million on that new system, but not all agencies have tied into it, in part, he feels, because of the cost involved.

He said that Sevier County is not part of the system, which was confirmed by John Mathews of the Sevier County EMA.

"Many local governments are choosing to do that, or have already done it, or are in negotiations to do that now. Gatlinburg and Sevier County do not have an agreement with us,” Trott said.

"So we do have a system that can service all these local governments but it does take an investment by local government to get on it,” Trott added.

After-action reports indicate ground communications weren't the only problem during the wildfires.

Roy Ward, a district forester of the West Tennessee district, wrote that there were problems with crews in the air talking to crews on the ground. Some air missions had to be aborted because of safety issues, he wrote.

In his report, Ward said the Army National Guard and the U.S. Forest Service aircraft couldn't fly over the same incident to fight fires because agencies "did not share radio frequencies."

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