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Group meets to discuss emergency communication

Nik Dirga, Sierra Sun

In the early hours of the Martis Fire last month, all that residents of Truckee could see was a towering plume of smoke that consumed half the sky. Local 911 phone lines were jammed and rumors that Glenshire was about to evacuate were everywhere.

In an emergency situation, accurate, timely information is the golden currency.

Following the confusion the Martis Fire created, town and emergency officials met this week to discuss how communication can be improved the next time disaster strikes Truckee.

On Monday, Town Councilwoman Maia Schneider hosted a meeting of an Emergency Communications Task Force at Truckee Town Hall, with the goal of making accurate information easily available to locals in case of an emergency.

Representatives of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Truckee Police Department, Truckee Fire Department, Tahoe Forest Hospital, U.S. Forest Service and several other agencies met to brainstorm ideas for better communication.

In the Martis Fire, “There was no single source for all the people to go to,” said Schneider.

The Martis Fire was a unique situation because while it appeared to threaten Truckee, due to the prevailing eastern winds and conditions the fire never actually was a threat to Truckee or Glenshire, said Truckee Fire Department chief Mike Terwilliger.

“It was a non event event,” was a frequent designation the panel attendees gave the fire.

If the fire had threatened Truckee, already established emergency protocols would have kicked in, and an emergency operation center would have been established with an information officer providing details to the media.

But the panel attendees acknowledged that for those who saw the smoke in the fire’s early hours, they had no way of knowing what was happening or if it would affect them.

“There was a lot of visual hysteria,” said Nevada County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Chaun Gass, referring to the smoke that led some locals to fear their homes were about to burn down. “We had 250 more 911 phone calls than usual in the first 12 hours of the Martis Fire.”

“The grapevine’s always busy, and not always accurate,” said Schneider.

A big concern was inaccurate information spread by Reno and Sacramento media, according to Terwilliger.

At least one Sacramento television station inaccurately reported that Glenshire was in immediate danger despite being told the opposite by local fire officials, said Terwilliger.

Terwilliger said that if an area needs to evacuate, the residents will be informed by emergency personnel.

“It’s only a problem if you hear from us,” he said. “If you don’t hear from us, it’s OK.”

The need for some sort of regional emergency communications center was also discussed, as was cooperation with Placer and Washoe counties when a situation affects the entire area.

One idea several panelists at the meeting supported was an emergency phone number featuring recorded information that people could call when necessary.

“If we just had a single line people could call, with multiple lines, and get almost instantaneous information,” said Scott Terrell with the Truckee Donner Public Utility District.

In an emergency situation, the NCSO does have access to an emergency broadcast system that would commandeer Reno public radio station KUNR’s local repeater frequency, 88.1 FM, and broadcast information to the immediate Truckee area. That broadcast would come directly from the NCSO substation.

However, that system’s range is limited to a few miles, and the agreement with KUNR allows the system only to be used in “life and death” situations, said NCSO Capt. Gary Jacobson.

The need for a permanent local radio station to serve the Truckee and North Lake Tahoe area in case of emergency was addressed by several panelists. One problem with making that idea a reality is the lack of real estate on the radio dial.

“(The frequencies) have all been taken by Sacramento and Reno stations,” said Gary McNally, director of Channel 6. McNally did say he thought there might be one frequency available for local use, owned by a local businessman.

Other solutions mentioned include a “reverse 911” system that would automatically call residents of an area that needs evacuating.

Some panelists noted that residents must remain calm and trust that emergency officials know what they’re doing and will try their best to keep them informed.

“There are people who are just going to panic no matter what,” said Terwilliger. “We’re just going to have to try and reach those who will listen to what we have to say.”

The Town of Truckee does have an established Emergency Preparedness Committee, which was created in the wake of the 1997 floods. That committee includes members of all major local agencies and media, and has established a protocol for reacting to major emergencies in Truckee.

The role of the committee is to plan for emergencies and ensure all the different agencies involved are able to work together, said Tamara Blanton, a town Public Works employee who helps coordinate that committee.

“It’s meant to function after an event and prior to an event,” said Blanton. “The committee was formed to help us all get to know each other and work together efficiently.”

The Emergency Preparedness Committee will meet this fall and will review their communications plan.

Schneider said she felt Monday’s meeting was a good start toward preparing the town for any future incidents like the Martis Fire.

“I really felt it was good to get all of those agencies together,” said Schneider. “I think that now the Emergency Preparedness Committee can reconvene with all of the parties, including those parties that disseminate information. I think a lot of good will come out of this.”


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