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Hanging Lake emergency calls straining Glenwood Springs fire crews

Hanging Lake

Medical calls at Hanging Lake are straining limited Glenwood Springs Fire Department staffing bandwidth, and the fire chief hopes that instituting a fee for the trail will provide some relief.

Glenwood Fire Chief Gary Tillotson said three types of calls to the department require the most staffing: structure fires, swiftwater rescues and Hanging Lake calls.

“Lots of people hike that trail who aren’t well-equipped, who don’t have good footwear or who are just not in shape for that kind of grueling hike. So we run into a variety of issues,” said the fire chief.

The Fire Department’s role in Hanging Lake responses is primarily for emergency medical services. It doesn’t have enough staff to send a sufficient number of responders to do a full extraction of a patient, so Glenwood must rely on the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and Garfield County Search and Rescue for expertise in retrieving people injured in spots that are difficult to reach.

When a call does come in, which could be anything from a twisted ankle to a serious injury, the department tries to limit the number of responders to only two to four. Still, that can be as much as half of the department’s available medical response staff tied up at Hanging Lake.

Last year the department was dispatched to 15 calls in a six-month period encompassing the tourist season. So far this year, the department has been dispatched six times to the trail. White River National Forest closed the trail a couple of weeks ago for maintenance, and in the first three days of its reopening, the fire department got three calls to the trail.

The key concern for Tillotson is that whatever number of responders the fire department sends to Hanging Lake, those responders are not available for emergencies in town.

Hanging Lake Trail is also the farthest point that the Glenwood Springs Fire Department’s jurisdiction reaches. Including Hanging Lake in Glenwood Fire’s response area probably originates back to when the fire district was first established in the late 1800s, said Tillotson.

That distance, on top of often needing to hike up to patients and possibly accompany them on a slow trip back down, can make for a two-to-three-hour call.

“So the big impact is reducing staffing in town for an extended period of time,” said Tillotson.

“Any time personnel are dispatched on one call, the incident commander’s next thought is, ‘What do I have available for the next call?'” said Tillotson. “And there is a high probability that another call with come in.”

Last year the department responded to 1,820 calls, and it’s not at all uncommon for two or more calls to overlap. In 2016, emergency calls overlapped more than 300 times.

When those human resources are spread thin, the department’s mutual aid agreements with surrounding agency’s become critical.

While Tillotson can call in off-duty personnel, there’s no guarantee that enough of them will be immediately available, since most have families and many have to watch their children while their spouse works.

“The best way for me to generate additional manpower in a hurry is through mutual aid,” he said. Likewise, Glenwood Fire needs to be ready to assist nearby fire districts that need more hands in an emergency.

“So we’re moving the workforce up and down and around the valley to the benefit to all of us,” said the chief.

But the possibility of tying up too many resources and then not having the personnel ready to respond to a big emergency is the threat that keeps the fire chief awake at night.

As of the end of May, Glenwood Fire’s calls are up 6.1 percent so far in 2017, and Tillotson anticipates running 1,900 or more calls by the end of the year. Historically, the department has gotten calls simultaneously for Hanging Lake and swiftwater rescues.

“Everyone in our profession just wants to be there to help when and where they are needed, though obviously there are some constraints on how far we can go and still be effective,” said Tillotson.

All of this adds up to Tillotson’s optimism about an impending proposal for a new Hanging Lake management plan that the White River National Forest is expected to unveil soon. U.S. Forest Service officials have said this proposal will include a fee for trail access, a shuttle system keeping hikers from parking at the trail head and a cap of 615 hikers per day. That’s about 40 percent of the number hikers Hanging Lake sees on average during the summer.

Along with cutting the number of hikers, Tillotson is hopeful that the fee will enable the Forest Service to have regularly scheduled rangers on the trail who could be there to respond to issues and better educate hikers on the trail’s difficulty and hazards, which would hopefully translate into fewer medical calls. Likewise the shuttle system will hopefully prevent vehicles stacking up in the parking lot, and, as has happened on some occasions, cars stacking up into the off ramp and onto the interstate itself.

“There are always going to be hikers and the potential for injuries and the need for us and for search and rescue. But the key is trying to bring those numbers down,” said Tillotson.