Fire chief wants better alert system

Correction: This story has been altered from its original form. Each instance of the phrase “emergency notification system” has been changed from the original story, which used the phrase “reverse 911.”

Ashland Fire & Rescue is working to improve its emergency alert systems after having communication problems during the Siskiyou fire as the blaze careened toward homes and forced evacuations.

Fire Chief John Karns said he wants to change Ashland's fire hot line, implement an emergency notification system and streamline the process of updating the city's Web site.

"I'm sensitive to the necessity of the public having information," he said Thursday.

When the hillside fire broke out on Monday, officials discovered that in order to update the wildfire hot line, 552-2490, the line had to be free of calls — which proved difficult as worried locals were consistently dialing the number.

"Clearly it was overburdened on Monday," Karns said. "It just wasn't able to keep up with the call volume."

This week the chief, who assumed his position in June after moving from Southern California, is looking at ways to improve the hot line, he said.

Karns would also like to create an emergency notification system, which can dial resident's phone numbers en masse to give them crucial information on evacuations.

"That is the best way not only to evacuate but also send out periodic notifications," he said.

Residents could opt to have their cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses added to the mass notification network to ensure that those without landline phones would be notified, he said.

Jackson County has established an emergency notification system, but Karns would like to create an Ashland-specific network, he said.

"While it won't happen overnight, we're working very hard at the mass notification system," he said.

The chief is also working with information technology experts to try to stream the emergency radio station, 1700 AM, on the city's Web site,

Officials directed people to tune to the radio station during Monday's blaze, but many of those who lived in the fire evacuation area — roughly between Timberlake Drive and Bellview Avenue — do not get reception.

Karns has also decided to keep Ashland Fire & Rescue's public information officer, Marguerite Hickman, available during emergencies. Hickman was largely unavailable on Monday.

"This was such a large event we actually committed our normal PIO to an overhead position, a command position, but I'm not going to do that in the future," Karns said.

The chief is hoping that having an on-call fire official handling news updates may help prevent the spread of misinformation.

In particular, Karns is working to reorganize how news updates are posted to the city's Web site, after an update on Monday incorrectly declared the fire fully contained. The fire was, in fact, not contained until 6 p.m. Thursday.

Even as he works to improve the city's alert systems, Karns is telling residents to prepare now for the next emergency — in case communication breaks down again.

"No mater what system you use, there are going to be holes in it," he said. "This is an opportunity for everybody to think through this situation for the future.

"When this comes again, it's what people have done to help themselves that can often make a difference between success and failure."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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