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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

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The Almeda Fire destroyed hundreds of mobile homes at parks across Jackson County. It released smoke that was so thick, it topped the state's air monitors.
The Almeda Fire was the most destructive wildfire in Oregon’s recorded history. On Sept. 8, 2020 it swept through the Rogue Valley within a matter of hours, destroying more than 2,600 homes between Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford.

The clear, cool days of Fall are such a welcome change. And, with the change in season comes the culmination of a very difficult and stressful fire season. We’ve all endured too many smokey days that have kept us indoors and on edge.

Here at JPR, fire has become an ever-present element of our daily work. We’ve been engaged all year covering the aftermath of last year’s Almeda and Obenchain fires -- telling the stories of those who lost so much, reporting on the recovery, and working in collaboration with NPR’s newly formed Investigations Unit to shine light on the numerous deficiencies in FEMA’s federal relief effort. We’ve also spent time conducting our own rebuilding effort, reconstructing the telecommunications building and replacing all the broadcast equipment of JPR station KSJK/Talent, which became a giant pile of ash in the Almeda Fire.

But, our biggest and most complex initiative this year has been conducting an evaluation of how we served the public during the Almeda and Obenchain fires and developing and implementing a plan to significantly improve our response to future public emergencies.

I’m proud of how quickly we moved as a group from being defensive about our failings to identifying problems and finding solutions as we addressed this issue.

The starting point of this analysis was the recognition that we did not meet our own expectations for public service during these incidents. Given the general effectiveness and efficiency of JPR’s operations, and the high level of motivation of JPR staff, that was a hard pill to swallow. But, the facts were clear – established external communication procedures left us with inadequate and untimely information to convey to citizens, the way our complex technical plant was configured did not allow us to systematically interrupt our own signals quick enough, our internal communication and training were not clear or detailed enough to empower decisive action and we did not have a structured chain of command in place to adapt to changing conditions.

I’m proud of how quickly we moved as a group from being defensive about our failings to identifying problems and finding solutions as we addressed this issue. And the plan that we developed together and implemented this fire season has been a giant step in the right direction. Specifically, our plan included:

  • Creating a comprehensive manual for addressing public emergencies that includes a decision-making/action matrix for the most predictable emergency scenarios.  The manual is very detailed and includes clarity on all aspects of decision making, acceptable sources of information, processes and procedures, contingency planning, and pre-written scripts.  One of the problems we faced during last September’s fires was that several of our news staff had homes in the evacuation zones and needed to make sure their families were safe before returning to their work.  The manual provides all programming staff with the training, direction and tools necessary to act, no matter their role at JPR.
  • Purchasing, installing and programming new technology that creates a simple, user-friendly way to strategically interrupt our radio signals within geographic zones so that we can alert listeners who may be in danger without alarming others outside those zones.  The zones are well-defined on a color-coded map so that communication about a decision to alert residents in a zone can be concise and clearly understood.  You may have heard several of these announcements this summer.
  • Installing and operating a backup system for connecting to the Internet.  The SOU campus lost Internet connectivity when the fiber backbone that follows the I-5 corridor was damaged in the Almeda fire.  This significantly hampered our ability to connect to public safety agencies and law enforcement for information.  The redundant system we installed does not rely on the main fiber backbone serving the Rogue Valley.
  • Assembling a database of the primary emergency contacts in every county in our listening area. This database will be updated regularly.  We also queried public safety agencies on the best way we can help serve the public during public emergencies.
  • Creating an online tool called the “JPR Wildfire Tracker” that tracked the status of every active wildfire during this summer’s wildfire season.  While it was a grueling task at times to keep current, we received very positive feedback about this tool from users of ijpr.org.
  • Establishing the JPR studios as a well-equipped evacuation facility.  We now stock food, water and sleeping supplies to accommodate 75 people-days (25 people for 3 days, 10 people for 7.5 days, etc.).  This will allow core staff, and their families if necessary, to be safe at JPR so that staff can serve the public in a prolonged emergency.  Our studios on the SOU campus are masonry clad, have modern fire suppression systems installed, and are surrounded by excellent defensible space. We recognized that staff could not leave their families so we planned to support family members as well.

As I write this column, I’m listening to JPR during our Fall Fund Drive. I just heard one of the great spots a listener helped create to inspire others to support our work and I’m reminded of our mutual responsibilities to each other. Your support has enabled us to take important steps to be a better, more effective organization this past year. And, we’re more committed than ever to achieving results that create stronger, safer communities in our region.

Paul Westhelle oversees management of JPR's service to the community.  He came to JPR in 1990 as Associate Director of Broadcasting for Marketing and Development after holding jobs in non-profit management and fundraising for a national health agency. He's a graduate of San Jose State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.