By Audrey Fraizer
Picture this: A 30-minute walk to work, maximum, straddles the Merced River flowing north of the road slapping over boulders along its 145-mile path from the Sierra Nevada mountain range cutting through the southern part of Yosemite National Park. The kids, if any, have already walked the block or two to school from their home in El Portal, the employee-housing neighborhood.
Sunny weather is in the forecast, with a high near 87 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of the third week in September, seasonal afternoon mountain thunderstorms dominate the forecast, along with continued highs in the 80s. The first snowfall looks two weeks away.
Tomorrow, your next day free, looks good for a hike to Mariposa Grove, which contains hundreds of massive sequoias, or you could watch a performance at Yosemite Theater, accessible by shuttle from the stop immediately outside the Arch Rock Entrance, east of El Portal.
There are certain advantages to foregoing conveniences of city living for a job at the communications center in America’s treasured wilderness, according to those who do just that.
EMD John Dahlberg wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Where else can you work with such beautiful views?” he asked.
A wild place
That playground “nothing can stop me” perception associated with a park celebrating 120 years of public service keeps dispatchers at work, and their job unpredictable.
Nancy Bissmeyer, National Park Service (NPS)—Yosemite emergency communications center manager, has “heard it all” during the 10 years since she moved west from South Dakota. Similar to dispatchers from larger urban centers, she never knows what the next call will bring—nor the resources it might require.
“We have our drunk and disorderly calls, the occasional call reporting a fight, and the callers needing help for someone in cardiac arrest,” she said. “But there are also calls most other centers wouldn’t receive, for example, bear jams.”
Yosemite National Park is a 747,956-acre—1,169-square-mile—paradise, of which 94.45% is designated wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 limits the type of uses available to the public for the “permanent good of the whole people.” The use of motorized vehicles is limited. No permanent roads or structures can be built. Cell phone coverage is patchy. A personal locator beacon can send a signal to search and rescue from deep in the wilderness, but it could take days for rescuers to arrive on horseback.
“The job challenges us to the core,” Bissmeyer said.
Visitors determine call types
Dispatch handled 72,079 calls in 2010. The annual tally fluctuates arbitrarily, depending largely on how accident-prone the park’s visitors are in any given year.
Many of the calls are administrative, and about a fourth of those are considered “incidents.” Roughly one-tenth of the calls dispatch received in 2010—710 total—required medical assistance, including on-scene response and the use of the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) protocols. There were 15 fatalities in 2010, compared to the 20 park-related deaths in 2011.
Medical calls include the hiker spraining an ankle and the tragic death of the three young adults who plunged down Vernal Fall in July. They also catch the “baby on the way” calls, and calls involving critical situations that happen anytime, anyplace. Bissmeyer will never forget the call from a park ranger choking on a meal she had fixed for lunch. “She flung herself over a chair and the food dislodged,” Bissmeyer said. “She survived.”
But calls aren’t all serious, at least in the frame of what can happen.
Dahlberg, who transferred to Yosemite National Park four years ago from a dispatch job in Fresno County, Calif., recalls the muffled voices of backcountry campers reporting a bear near their tent at 3 a.m. A campground sighting would alert park rangers who scare the bears away using rubber bullets or noisemakers. Sending park rangers on response for a presumed sighting in a place not so accessible, however, isn’t likely.
“Sometimes we can’t go; we have to wait,” said Park Ranger Matt Stark, who as a shift leader decides response based on the dispatcher’s information and an assessment tool that assigns a numerical value from 1-9 to each incident. “Sometimes it’s the swift water, weather, or other factor that would affect the safety of rescue.”
Most park visitors—more than 4 million make the trip every year—never enter the wilderness areas, preferring to enjoy the sights as a scenic backdrop from viewpoints a short walk from their cars parked along the twisting roads or at trailheads. Although the driving trip seems far less risky than, say, a technical climb of El Capitan, it’s no less hazardous.
The 91 park rangers making up the Valley, Wawona, and Mather districts operational staff spend a lot of their time reporting to traffic accidents (670 in 2010, with 72 injuries) and arrests (258 in 2010, with those charged facing temporary housing in the Yosemite jail and a return visit to the park’s district court). They also respond to wildlife reports and post placards at roadsides marking a bear fatality to remind drivers to slow down along the hilly and curvy roads. Bears also figure into the annual property damage reports. A locked car or trailer door doesn’t stop a hungry bear when it smells food negligently left inside. The bear will just pry the door open and get on with the feast. Food must be stored in NPS-provided, bear-resistant containers.
Tourists do die in plunges down waterfalls or in a slip from the granite face of Half Dome, but not to the extent news media coverage of such incidents might suggest.
The forgotten water bottle or rain gear or the blistered feet from wearing sandals on the Muir Trail are routine emergency calls.
“People are unprepared,” Stark said. “That’s what gets them into trouble.”
Try as they might
While a park ranger’s primary job involves enforcing the NPS laws similar to municipal and city police departments, they also direct and participate in rescue and recovery operations as part of Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), an organization established by climbers in the 1960s.
YOSAR team members, who include NPS park rangers, offer a variety of outdoor emergency skills in all aspects of Alpinism (rock and ice climbing, backcountry navigation, and skiing) and are certified as basic Emergency Responders. Volunteers, who during a summer spend 250 to 400 hours on emergency calls, live separately from rangers in a tent cabin at Camp 4 or the tent village at the Tuolumne Meadows campground. The group also fields its own team of 25 canines and handlers, nicknamed “YODOGS.”
With maybe one ranger or YOSAR team member for every 10,000 tourists, response sometimes comes down to the personnel available and the requisite skills they can contribute. Many, like Stark, wear both hats.
“Everyone at the park must be willing to diversify,” he said.
The same applies in the communications center.
On a Monday in mid-September, Bissmeyer was at work before 8 a.m. for a shift that could last well into the evening. In addition to supervisory duties and handling the phone and radios, she will provide hands-on training to Sandy Aguilera, a temporary hire.
Aguilera, who lives in the park district complementing her firefighting husband’s assignment, will spend the first several days observing the other dispatchers at work. She will eventually occupy one of the four stations in the center, answering calls; dispatching fire, medical, and law enforcement response; and anything else “as assigned.”
She will respond to the stray requests coming into the office: clarifications to the All-Inclusive Emergency Responder Street Atlas, provide travel directions, watch the video patch of monitored entrance gates on an overhead screen, and listen to complaints or hear long-winded stories detailing the evacuation of El Portal during the recent fire sparked by an over-exerted motor home.
She will learn the difference between front country calls (calls made from campgrounds and roads providing easy access, and the calls most often open to EMD instructions) and backcountry calls (calls from wilderness areas that might require triage and field response; an EMD might give instructions but more often the call is directed to YOSAR for rescue or recovery).
Dispatchers are guaranteed overtime. Bissmeyer doesn’t remember the last time the center was fully staffed at 10 people. Right now, including the new hire, six people are working 12-hour shifts instead of the officially scheduled 10-hour day.
“We work the equivalent of 1.5 people in overtime,” said Bissmeyer, who worked a 14-hour shift on the day a motor fire threatened El Portal residents. “Not only is it our commitment to the park but no one’s going to walk out at the end of a 10-hour shift because of other plans. We’re a team.”
The emergency thread
The team approach excelled during a call that came in at 8:55 a.m., on Sept. 19. Bissmeyer overheard Dahlberg, who answered the call, talking to a caller—named Michael—reporting a fall from an area above his pitch on Half Dome. (See related story.)
Bissmeyer turned toward her console and radioed search and rescue operations in Yosemite Valley. She requested assistance, and Dahlberg held the line until he was given the OK to transfer Michael’s call. At this point, the estimated 500- to 600-foot fall is considered a recovery, rather than a rescue, a judgment verified by a doctor on the same climbing route close to the victim.
Dispatch will track the helicopter carrying equipment and crew to the scene, using a program that provides the helicopter’s location in 15-minute intervals, and receive progress reports through the recovery stage.
“The rest is in their hands,” Dahlberg said. “It’s been turned over.”
The climber is the 19th person to die so far in 2011 and among the less than 10 people killed while pursuing an adventure outside their cars. As of mid-September, five people had drowned in swift-moving water and three had fallen from Half Dome.
Dahlberg said his years of experience steel him for the hard calls; they might not get any easier to handle but you develop methods for helping people through the crisis.
“You get used to the rapid switches, the highs and lows,” said Dahlberg, who goes on an occasional EMT call coming into the El Portal District. “It’s a challenge. Every incident has been determined by the time it reaches us, and it’s our job to pass on the information.”
Staying ahead of the calls
Technology has provided the park a major boost in communication. Although federal spending doesn’t keep up with the “wish list,” the dispatchers have pitched in to develop their own resources.
A move in 2000 from an outdated communications center in Yosemite Village to a modern combined public safety facility in El Portal signaled advanced technology—computer-assisted dispatch, for example—and MPDS.
A computerized mapping system developed by EMD Ansley Rothell and Student Hire Jereme Chandler triangulates position through GPS tracking, giving responders the ability to develop rescue/recovery plans in near real time after the situation occurs and dispatchers the ability to lead lost hikers back on trail without calling for search and rescue assistance.
The mapping program also replaces the “old school” wall map and manual pull string triangulation system formerly used for determining wildfire location and wind direction based on reports from the Signal and Pilot fire lookout tours. All locations on the map are available in the All-Inclusive Emergency Responder Street Atlas organized by Rothell and based on her mapping system.
“We can do a lot more in-house,” Bissmeyer said.
It’s 10 a.m., the time each day Bissmeyer picks up the radio to give the weather and fire reports. She reports 15 active fires; five down from the 20 lightning caused the previous week. All fires are monitored. Yosemite NPS fire managers decide whether to keep or put out a fire.
NPS Administrative Assistant Trish Dutrey brings in documents requiring Bissmeyer’s signature in the absence of the communications branch chief, and Aguilera returns from the HR office. A firefighter drops by, asking about travel reimbursement. The phones ring, the radio hisses, and Dahlberg studies video shots of the park’s four entrance gates. The helicopter tracking system beeps, showing the approximate location relative to the fallen climber.
“Working here is like playing the piano,” Bissmeyer said. “It’s a matter of dividing your attention and giving everything the best you can.”