By Michael Rigert
In 1902, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid naturalist and outdoorsman, penned his thoughts about what he considered one of America’s greatest resources—its diverse continental territory stretching 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean—and the opportunities its pristine wildernesses afford each citizen to experience.
“All life in the wilderness is so pleasant that the temptation is to consider each particular variety, while one is enjoying it, as better than any other,” he wrote. “A canoe trip through the great forests, a trip with a pack-train among the mountains, a trip on snow-shoes through the silent, mysterious fairy-land of the woods in winter—each has its peculiar charm.”
A staunch advocate of conservation, Roosevelt would be remembered in history for several legacies, among them that he greatly expanded the country’s system of national parks and national forests. Hence, Grand Teton National Park, which showcases the Teton Range in Wyoming near the Idaho border, was first established in 1929, and today is the seventh most visited national park in America. Famous for its monumental scenery and wildlife, the park covers 310,000 acres with an array of lakes, such as Jackson Lake; mountain vistas, such as the Grand Teton (13,770 feet); and the nearby alpine recreation area known collectively as Jackson Hole. In reference to Roosevelt’s idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque imagery of a summer canoe trip on a trout-filled river versus snowshoeing to a cozy forest cabin with a stoked fireplace in wintertime, he could well have been describing Grand Teton National Park.
But even tranquil scenes of park visitors taking in amber sunsets on Jenny Lake or gazing up in wonder at star-studded night skies must be tempered with a weighty dose of reality. The park had almost four million visitors in 2013, with the bulk of them coming during the summer. Given that quantity of Homo sapiens traipsing through the great outdoors, there’s bound to be a few mishaps and emergencies.
One such predicament involving a busload of international tourists happened in July at the park. This incident tested the planning, skills, and coordination efforts of more than a half dozen public safety agencies, including Teton Interagency Dispatch Center (TIDC), located in the park. But it also ultimately proved the resourcefulness and mettle of TIDC staff in handling what they often deal with better than anyone—the unexpected.
A road trip
Though the police investigation is yet to be completed, authorities are fairly certain they know what caused a commercial tour bus filled with passengers to flip on its side during the afternoon of July 10. The vehicle slid for several feet before coming to a stop perpendicular to North Highway 89 roughly four miles north of Colter Bay Village. The highway is a main regional transportation artery that connects Grand Teton National Park with Yellowstone National Park (the tourists’ intended destination that day), and serves thousands of traveling visitors each day.
“We think (the driver) dropped a wheel off the road and overcorrected,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park. “He was cited with unsafe vehicle operation.”
Aboard were 26 Chinese visitors and the vehicle’s driver, all of whom sustained some type of injury during the crash.
But in the moments just after the mass casualty incident (MCI), the cause of the wreck was the least concern of area public safety agencies. More urgent were the 27 individuals with varying degrees of injuries, ranging from severe to minor, that required immediate emergency medical attention. Compounding the complexities of the EMS response was the fact that virtually none of the victims spoke English. And finally, due to the angle that the bus came to rest on the highway, the 33-foot vehicle blocked all traffic on the north-south thoroughfare during the height of the park’s busiest travel season.
Since cellphone and even radio reception can be spotty in areas of the park due to the rugged topography, it was purely good fortune that park maintenance employees happened upon the wreck and radioed in to the park’s TIDC, Skaggs said.
“Basically, we needed as much help as we could get, as quickly as possible,” said Tiffany Smith, a lead dispatcher with TIDC, who helped manage the situation after the first radio call was received at 4:13 p.m.
Smith and four other dispatchers on duty at the time immediately contacted several area agencies for mutual aid assistance, including the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, Wyoming Highway Patrol, St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, Wyo., and Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (EIRMC) in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
EMS personnel at the scene triaged the victims as best they could given the language barrier and determined that two of the passengers, a man that couldn’t move and another patient with trauma to the chest and an arm, were seriously injured, Skaggs said. Life Flight helicopters transported the two patients to EIRMC.
The other 25 patients had minor to moderate injuries and were transported by four ambulances to St. John’s Medical Center. Eight “walking wounded” were shuttled to the local hospital in a Grand Teton Lodge Company passenger van.
“It’s one of the largest single vehicle accidents we’ve had in a long time,” Skaggs said.
As a precaution, EIRMC had also dispatched a Life Flight fixed-wing aircraft that landed at Jackson Hole Airport located within the park. This plane remained on stand by in case other injured passengers took a turn for the worse. Grand Teton National Park is the only U.S. national park with a full-service airport capable of accommodating jet-powered aircraft.
A hive of activity
TIDC, a public safety answering point (PSAP), has a service area that covers four million acres, including Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming. TIDC also dispatches for wildland fire-related incidents at the National Elk Refuge and dispatches wildland fire incidents and resources for three Wyoming counties.
As an interagency comm. center, TIDC works in close cooperation with nearby county agencies in Wyoming and with Yellowstone National Park on incidents near the common border, Skaggs said.
The center employs temporary, seasonal dispatchers during the area’s hectic summer season in order to support its permanent dispatch staff. TIDC dispatches for law enforcement, wildland fire, aviation, search and rescue, EMS, and structural fire, Smith said.
“Initially, the MCI was reported as a car accident,” Smith said. “My co-worker took the initial radio reports. Then I heard him say there was a tour bus on its side.”
Patrick Hattaway, the park’s Colter Bay District ranger, also acts as an incident commander for exigencies that run the gamut from motor vehicle accidents and natural disasters to wildfires and special events. He has 36 years of experience with the National Park Service in land management and law enforcement, and also serves as an incident command system instructor and risk management program facilitator.
Hattaway’s first reaction to the news of the overturned tour bus was largely practical: “This is what we’ve thought about and trained for over many years.” Afterward, it was more reflective: “Three months from retirement and a bus MCI actually occurred,” Hattaway said.
TIDC was the lead agency since the accident took place within Grand Teton National Park. Teton County Sheriff’s Office Communication Center, which is the 9-1-1 PSAP, sent two county ambulances, a rescue unit, a Jackson Hole Fire/EMS battalion chief, and two sheriff’s deputies, said Terri Sherman, communications supervisor for the county comm. center.
Hattaway said the multi-agency response priority to the MCI was clear—“Bring order to chaos so the injured could be transported as effectively as possible to definitive care facilities.”
Early on, Smith and the other dispatchers directed resources and sent the park’s ambulances to the site from park headquarters in Moose, Wyo. The center’s entire staff worked the incident, with one dispatcher monitoring the radio while the four others operated the phones and answered both incoming related and non-related phone calls.
“We called Teton County and Yellowstone and asked for everything that they had,” Smith said.
After tending to the needs of the injured with the first EMS personnel on-site and air and ground ambulances en route, the center’s next priority was to address the ancillary problem of traffic control.
“There was an immediate need for law enforcement to provide traffic control,” Skaggs said. “North Highway 89 was closed for five hours until about 9 p.m. There were a lot of visitors stranded on the road.”
In a spirit of volunteerism, park maintenance employees who initially discovered the wreck jumped in as “non-traditional” first responders when Hattaway radioed for help with the growing logjam of vehicles on the road, Skaggs said. The six employees, joined by a seasonal park volunteer, worked traffic control until park law enforcement rangers and Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers arrived on-scene.
G.R. Fletcher, a backcountry climbing ranger with the park based out of Jenny Lake, got a phone call from Smith late in the afternoon of July 10 that he wasn’t quite expecting but yet wasn’t a total surprise.
“I knew what was going on,” Fletcher said, who had heard TIDC’s radio chatter over his handset. “I knew there were a lot of Chinese people on a bus that had been in an accident.”
Prior to his seven years with the park, Fletcher, who is also an EMT, had spent nine summers in Taiwan teaching English. He met and married a Taiwanese native, Sarah (her Chinese name is Chia-Hui), and, consequently, he learned to speak some Mandarin.
“Some would be the key word,” he said, jokingly. “I could trick people for a while.”
Smith asked if he could assist ER staff with Mandarin interpretation at St. John’s Medical Center.
As fate would have it, it wasn’t the first time Fletcher’s been able to use his foreign language skills to help an injured park visitor. Earlier in 2014, Fletcher helped an English-speaking Chinese man who had taken a tumble in a river. When a paramedic treating the man got stumped after the patient didn’t understand a question in English about medication, Fletcher asked him in Mandarin, eliciting both the answer and a wide-eyed look of disbelief. In previous years, the ranger has also had similar experiences helping Mandarin-speaking visitors.
“At first there was some trepidation,” Fletcher said regarding initial second thoughts about his Mandarin abilities. But after reflecting upon past experiences, he realized there wasn’t anything to make a fuss about.
Fletcher beat the ambulances to St. John’s, and observed that arriving patients had primarily suffered orthopedic and limb fractures, and a few had head injuries. He began talking to the patients, “Where do you hurt? Does it still hurt? Did you lose consciousness?”
“Right off the bat, I could tell it was pretty simple,” he said. “They realized that I could speak with them.”
For more complex questions about a patient’s medical history, ER staff relied on an impromptu innovation of ER Dr. Adam Johnson’s. He used a Google mobile app on his cellphone to query the patients on information that was too complex for Fletcher to interpret back and forth. With the app, users verbalize or type in sentences or phrases in English and the app provides audio and text versions in the language selected. Later on, Li Wang, a Chinese native and Jackson Hole resident, was able to assist ER staff with more nuanced interpretation duties with the injured.
TIDC and law enforcement rangers with the park’s Visitor & Resource Protection Division regularly train for a variety of emergency scenarios, Smith said. All the TIDC dispatchers are EMDs and annually participate in in-house and joint training exercises with local agency partners. A few of the dispatchers, including Smith, are also certified EMTs.
“It’s the reality that something like this could happen in the park,” Smith said.
TIDC’s dispatchers also participate in periodic in-house EMS and law enforcement training that often involves other agencies, including Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and Teton County Emergency Services.
“It’s great to work together in these scenarios, and great practice for us and the field personnel to have an idea so we both know what each other does behind the scenes,” Smith said.
Sherman said the Teton County Sheriff’s Office Communication Center, along with local, county, and federal emergency agencies, including Grand Teton National Park and TIDC, participate in biannual training and planning meetings hosted by Teton County Emergency Management to better coordinate communications and response for search and rescue, aircraft landing zones, and related emergencies.
Rich Ochs, emergency management coordinator for Teton County, said though the department was only minimally involved in the multi-agencies’ response to the July 10 tour bus MCI, the county’s emergency operations center (EOC) can be activated for MCIs in their jurisdiction. During this incident, the county issued emergency alerts to subscribers via the Nixle alert system about the North Highway 89 closure. Nixle then automatically sent it to social media as well as to the county’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
“This is the nightmare scenario that we kind of run through with emergency services as long as I’ve been here—the bus crash,” Ochs said. “But usually the training is for a high-angle rescue on Teton Pass, where a bus might go off the side of the road and down steep embankments. For this one, the complications were that the victims didn’t speak English and that the main thoroughfare between Yellowstone and Jackson was blocked for hours.”
That type of complexity had never been considered before.
Hattaway reiterated that about the only substantive factor that actually caught public safety leaders off-guard during the July 10 MCI was the foreign language interpretation wrinkle, something that park authorities are reviewing.
“The primary obstacle was the language barrier,” Hattaway said.
Skaggs said the park has seen an exponential increase in the number of Asian visitors in recent years.
On a weekly basis, the Teton County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center is contacted for mutual aid assistance from many of the area’s public safety agencies and regularly takes care of the National Elk Refuge’s communications, Sherman said. In sum, cooperation and coordination between agencies is often critical to public safety response in Teton County and the surrounding area.
“Teton Interagency Dispatch Center and Teton County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch have a great working relationship and work closely together for search and rescues, driving complaints, road hazards, etc.,” Sherman said.
The park averages about 70 search and rescue missions each year, Skaggs said.
Prior to the July 10 tour bus MCI, the park’s most recent multiple casualty incident was on July 20, 2010, when 17 climbers suffered injuries from multiple lightning strikes near the summit of the Grand Teton during an active thunderstorm; one of the climbers fell to his death. The 16 other climbers were rescued off the mountain by two interagency contract helicopters and more than 60 interagency personnel and park concessioner staff.
Though Smith has dispatched for other MCIs, she had never experienced an incident of this magnitude. When events like this take place, dispatchers fall back on the figurative muscle memory of their training, she said.
“It definitely gets your blood pumping,” Smith said. “I thought it went really smoothly considering the complexities of the accident and the number of patients.”
Hattaway said years of multi-agency training paid big dividends and then some on July 10 when the MCI scenario they prepare for the most actually came to fruition.
“Our combined training, agreements, and willingness to work together made a major difference during this accident,” he said.
Across the board, Hattaway said, each agency and its employees involved with the MCI followed the training and planning in a coordinated effort that resulted in a successful outcome for those affected. Most of the patients at St. John’s were treated and released by 9 p.m. that same day, Skaggs said, and the two patients flown to EIRMC were listed in fair condition as of July 11.
“I believe that everyone was outstanding in their performance, ” Hattaway said. “Responders accepted assignments, and they saw gaps that they brought forward. TIDC was masterful at handling the incident, staffing up to continue running the park and handling incoming calls. Assisting agencies never hesitated to send support and offer more, if necessary.”
Hattaway and Skaggs said park personnel, from TIDC dispatchers, to first responders, to maintenance employees all came together and essentially put on an impromptu clinic of how to respond and go above and beyond when duty calls. A number of the park’s rangers and other personnel are cross-trained in other disciplines, but even those who aren’t stepped up and came forward to help.
“Within our NPS agency, being able to be a generalist and yet be specialized with EMS, law enforcement, or dispatch skills is typical,” Skaggs said. “We still depend on the ‘renaissance ranger’ that masters a lot of different skills.”
And nobody shined brighter during the tour bus MCI than the park’s emergency dispatchers, she said.
“They’re the unsung heroes and the nerve center of emergencies,” Skaggs said. “They’re that critical cog, and we simply couldn’t do our jobs without them.” =
1Roosevelt T, Strong Van Dyke T, Giraud Elliot D, Jackson Stone A. The Deer Family. First edition. Grosset & Dunlap; New York. 1902.
2Ten Most Visited Parks 2013. National Parks Conversation Association. http://www.npca.org/exploring-our-parks/visitation/html (accessed Aug. 19, 2014).
3Park Statistics. Grand Teton National Park (U.S. National Park Service). http://www.nps/gov/grte/parkmgmt/statistics/htm (accessed Aug. 19, 2014).
4Graham, B. Teton park bus crash injures 26 Chinese. Jackson Hole News and Guide. 2014; July 14.