Fire chief expects response changes

ASHLAND — The city's fire/rescue department is working to improve its emergency alert systems after communication problems surfaced during last Monday's Siskiyou fire.

Fire Chief John Karns said he wants to change Ashland's fire hot line, implement a reverse 9-1-1 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, 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 continually dialing the number for the latest information.

"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 said he also would like to create a reverse 9-1-1 system, which can dial residents' 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 land-line telephones would be notified, he said.

Jackson County has established a reverse 9-1-1 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 new chief also is 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 said he hopes that having an on-call fire official handling news updates may help prevent the spread of misinformation.

In particular, Karns said he is reorganizing how news updates are posted to the city's Web site. 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," he said.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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