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Gilman Fire tested alert system’s effectiveness

Mountainous country makes communication difficult
Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on August 28, 2018 5:09PM

Ted Williams, the Grant County emergency management coordinator, stands in front of an incident command organization chart Aug. 24.

The Eagle/Richard Hanners

Ted Williams, the Grant County emergency management coordinator, stands in front of an incident command organization chart Aug. 24.

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In the late evening of Aug. 20, as the Gilman fire was burning 12 miles north of Monument amidst thick smoke from distant and regional fires, Grant County issued a Level 1 Pre-Evacuation Fire Advisory for northwest Grant County.

While the county’s AlertSense system issued the notice to some residents in the Monument, Ritter, Dale and Middle and North Fork communities, some residents said they did not receive the message.

The Blue Mountain Eagle also never received a notification.

Grant County Emergency Management Coordinator Ted Williams said he will be contacting the newspaper in the future and that isolated technical failures in the alert system, such as phone calls without messages, also need to be addressed.

He said, however, the mountainous terrain in that part of the county will always challenge communications.


The alert system


The AlertSense emergency communication system will automatically send messages Williams creates to all landlines inside a designated geographic boundary. People with cellphones or those who want email notices need to sign up online at http://public.alertsense.com, by using a cellphone app or by filling out a paper form available at the emergency management office, 530 E. Main St., John Day.

Subscribers can choose among various types of emergency notices they want, from flood to fire to extreme weather. They can later modify their choices or unsubscribe altogether. The alert system recognizes when people receive messages and will connect to answering machines and devices for the blind or deaf, Williams said.

Additional emergency information can be found on Facebook at the Grant County Oregon Emergency Management page. When the new Grant County website goes online in January, its user-friendly format will enable Williams to upload much of the emergency information he’s been gathering since he took the job.

Williams became the Grant County emergency management coordinator in November 2015 following the Canyon Creek Complex fire. Before that, the county judge, who is the director of the emergency management office, handled many of the office’s tasks, Williams said.

About 90 percent of the alerts Williams composes are for wildfires and floods, but he also sends out alerts for ice jams, wind storms and last year for the solar eclipse event.

After speaking to incident commanders for ongoing emergencies, Williams will choose a trigger point for sending out alerts to the public. The sheriff and the county judge also have the authority to direct him to issue a notification through AlertSense.

In areas with numerous canyons and mountains, like northwest Grant County, cellphone coverage is spotty and residents rely on landlines for telephone communication and satellite for internet access. Cellphone towers are set up to provide coverage in valley bottoms because that’s where most people live, Williams said.


Alert effectiveness


Williams recommends residents sign up for the free AlertSense notices. He tests the emergency communication system once a month by sending an alert to certain first responders and uses the software to see how many people received a notice to determine its effectiveness.

About 1,500 people successfully received alert notifications during a flash flood event this past spring, Williams said. He estimated more than 500 people in northwest Grant County received the Level 1 alert for the Gilman Fire.

But the system was not foolproof. Kay Steele, who lives close enough to be able to see flames from the Gilman Fire, said her landline phone rang about 10 p.m. the night the alert was put out, but there was no message, no voice at all. She said a neighbor had the same problem.

Steele said she learned about the alert about an hour later when someone saw the alert posted on Sheriff Glenn Palmer’s personal Facebook page, which was reposted on a community group’s website that Steele frequents.

Steele lives in rugged, isolated country. There is little cellphone coverage or commercial radio reception, and she relies on satellite for internet access.

On the first day of the fire, visibility was down to a quarter-mile because of thick smoke settling in from distant fires. Steele and her closest neighbors didn’t know how close the Gilman Fire was to their homes, she said.

Steel said she signed up for AlertSense the next day with the hope of receiving email notifications, but sometimes her emails arrive one day after they’re sent, she noted.



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