TEMA director answers questions about lost calls during wildfire - WSMV News 4

TEMA director answers questions about lost calls during wildfires

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TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan (WSMV) TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan (WSMV)

The director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency sat down for the first time to answer questions after all the emergency calls from the Gatlinburg wildfires were lost.

Fourteen people were killed and thousands were forced from their homes last November.

The emergency calls were critical in that they could have provided information on how emergency crews evacuated people that first day of the fires.

The News 4 I-Team had some tough questions for TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan.

“This is something we would have benefited from having this information,” Sheehan said.

But because all the calls in and out of TEMA from that first day of the fires are gone, Sheehan said they'll have to find other ways to learn from any mistakes that may have been made.

“These calls could have provided critical information about how evacuations were handled that day. Without those calls how do you learn from it?” asked the I-Team’s Lindsay Bramson.

“So most of the evacuation communications was not happening on landlines,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan said on Nov. 28, much of the communication was happening on radios or cell phones, which are not recorded. He said it's unclear exactly how many calls came in on one of the 88 recorded landlines.

And while the agency knew about this back on Dec. 8, it wasn't until last month they released the information.

"Why did TEMA take nearly eight months to tell the public they failed us? Where is the transparency in our city and state governments?” said two Gatlinburg survivors at a press conference two weeks ago.

“Those who lost their homes are frustrated these calls were lost. What do you say to them?” Bramson asked.

“I can understand their frustration. I'm frustrated as well,” Sheehan answered.

“Do you take responsibility for what happened, for the calls getting lost?” Bramson asked.

“I mean I’m the director of the agency and I was the director when the calls were lost. But I’m not the person who maintains the calls system,” Sheehan said.

TEMA hired a forensic examiner to try and recover the lost calls. It didn’t work.

"We're in the process of doing an after-action right now to capture any lessons learned and areas of improvement so we can make sure the response side is as good as it can be and that we’re working to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan said once the charges against the two teens accused of setting the deadly wildfires were dropped, they could then release the information about the calls that were deleted. That's why they couldn't say anything back in December when they first realized the calls were gone.

He said before that they were advised by their counsel not to release any information to the public.

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