One year ago, the Gatlinburg wildfires brought scrutiny to Sevier County’s emergency planning. Looking back on that event, experts have said the key to successful execution is advance planning.

In the emergency management business, they have a saying, according to Colin Ickes. “You can’t take the disaster out of a disaster,” he said.

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Knox County/Knoxville EMA director Colin Ickes discussing good preparation.
Knox County/Knoxville EMA director Colin Ickes discussing good preparation.

Ickes is director of the Knoxville/Knox County Emergency Management Agency. He’s tasked with coordinating all the responding agencies in a disaster.

MORE: One year after fires, Sevier Co. considers expanded evacuation planning

“The emergency operations center is where we put our heads together to coordinate, share information and do strategic level planning for the response,” he said.

Ickes’ office keeps a response plan, but it deals more in process than specifics to situations. For instance, he can’t predict what Interstate 40 might look like in a large-scale evacuation, because there are too many variables – even in a toxic spill, which he said is the most likely.

Busy Interstate 40
A busy day on Interstate 40.

“We can’t identify evacuation routes ahead of time, we can’t know all the details and specifics like weather patterns, which way a hazardous chemical cloud might go,” Ickes said. “But we can identify who will be the lead agency, and who the supporting agencies will be.”

Many other organizations across East Tennessee keep emergency plans on file.

The University of Tennessee keeps guidelines and practices them. Most recently, they drilled what would happen if a tornado hit Neyland Stadium on game day.

The Tennessee Valley Authority keeps evacuation plans online in case of nuclear disaster at a power plant or a dam breaking. These plans give nearby communities near Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry specific evacuation instructions.

Ickes' office also publishes a preparation guide for local neighborhoods.

READ MORE: TVA Nuclear Evacuation Plans and Preparation Guidelines

Ickes said this preparation is important. Even if they can’t prevent the worst from happen, knowing who to turn to can go a long way.

“There’s always challenges,” he said. “It’s our job to anticipate the challenges and be as ready as we can. But there’s always some kind of surprise or thing we didn’t anticipate, some issue we need to work out on the fly.”

“I don’t know of any disaster that’s ever gone perfectly, but we’re going to work together with a great team to make sure we serve the public and keep everyone as safe as we can,” he added.

Ickes also recommends putting together a disaster preparedness kit using these FEMA guidelines.