Officials: Gatlinburg evacuation alerts were never sent to area cell phones

'Perfect storm of variables' prevented alerts
Posted at 10:42 AM, Dec 06, 2016

GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- For days, officials responding to the devastating wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains insisted that evacuation alerts were sent to cell phones in the Gatlinburg area amidst dangerous wildfires.

Now, the emergency response agency says those alerts were never sent.

Records show the National Weather Service sent out two evacuation alerts to mobile phones in the Gatlinburg area on Monday night: The first was sent at 9:03 p.m. and the second was sent at 11:47 p.m.

RELATED: Walton family narrowly escapes Gatlinburg fire

Because wildfires are not a weather-related emergency, the message only went to television and radio -- not mobile phones.

"It didn't meet the criteria of a weather alert to go to people's cell phones," says Anthony Cavalluci, a Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service based out of Morristown, Tennessee. Cavalluci said the National Weather Service can only send mobile push alerts for tornados, flash floods, tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes, dust storms and excessive wind warnings.

As fire approached downtown Gatlinburg, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency was tasked with deciding whether or not to send a mobile alert. TEMA is the only agency in Tennessee who can send customized mobile alerts to every cell phone in a specific area, such as Gatlinburg.

Recent reports say 14 people died in the fires.

RELATED: Cincinnati native's wife, 2 daughters die in TN fires

Officials from TEMA said a perfect storm of variables prevented them from getting the evacuation order from the county.

"Communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet, and electrical services," TEMA said in a statement. "Due to this interruption, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned through...EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices."

Cell phone service -- which is typically spotty in the Smoky Mountains -- was made worse after at least one cell tower was damaged by the fast moving fire.

"This was an unprecedented storm a lot of things had to happen in the wrong way for this to happen," Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday.

RELATED: Here's how you can help Gatlinburg fire victims

WCPO - 9 On Your Side sister station News Channel 5 in Nashville originally reported this story