November 20, 2012
Yellowstone 911: An Inside Look
More than 300 arrests, 500 car accidents, 1,000 calls for emergency medical services and 250 helicopter life-flights. These may sound like the stats from any number of counties, towns, or small cities in the U.S., but instead this is the annual workload of the Yellowstone National Park Dispatch Center.
Located inside the Park's headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, WY, the operation is staffed by eight permanent and up to five seasonal dispatchers.
Many people have the impression that there is one person sitting here answering the phone and a bunch of rangers waiting around the Park to help," said Bonnie Schwartz, Deputy Chief Ranger in Yellowstone. But the reality is we get enough calls to need multiple dispatchers on duty at any given time, and often the law enforcement or emergency services personnel they need are dispersed throughout the area already handling other calls."
It's More than Just Yellowstone
Emergency calls to 911 come in directly to this 24-hour, year-round Dispatch Center. So far in 2012, it has received 23,500 calls, and the average number of 911 calls reaches around 175-185 each day in the summertime.
Not that all these incidents originate in Yellowstone; the Dispatch Center provides an enormous public service by dispatching for a large geographic area outside the Park. They serve as primary or secondary dispatchers for multiple Montana towns and small cities, as well as for the Montana and Wyoming Highway Patrols on long stretches of roads such as U.S. Highway 191, the Beartooth Highway, and in Sunlight Basin.
Wired into the Dispatch Center are 200 cameras monitoring 1,500 Park buildings, entrance gates, and the four cells within Yellowstone's jail. They are also responsible for coordinating response to 600 fire alarms, intrusion alarms, and panic buttons within the Park and adjacent Park County, MT.
Ensuring Park staff safety is an ongoing priority of the dispatch staff, and dispatchers track the frequent airplane flights and boat trips used for ranger patrols and scientific research teams in the backcountry. They also check in with snow plow operators at set intervals due to the danger of avalanches.
"We may be located within the Park, but this is an inter-agency Dispatch Center," says Kaelyn Johnson who, as Yellowstone's Communication Manager, oversees the day-to-day operation of the Dispatch Center. "As dispatchers we need to think on our feet and ask ourselves 'what's my closest resource?' Sometimes it's a Park resource, sometimes not. When someone needs help, we don't care what color your uniform is. Public Safety is a small, tight-knit community and we all work together."
Yellowstone rangers cross-train alongside county and municipal law-enforcement teams on practice drills to respond to a bomb threat, hostage situation, or school shooting incident. They could very well be the first responders to such an incident.
Recent Advances Improve Public Safety
In the past three years, the Yellowstone Park Foundation has facilitated donations to significantly upgrade the Dispatch Center's capacity.
In 2012, the CodeSpear SmartMsg system was installed and now allows instant internal messaging between Park locations using voice, mobile text message, and email. Prior to acquiring this system, which is commonly used in cities and college campuses for everything from tornado warnings to AMBER alerts, the Dispatch Center would spend a lot of time making individual telephone calls to multiple range stations and gates to, for example, report an emergency road closing. Now, with the touch of a button, important messages are sent to dozens of locations and personnel in multiple formats.
Both of these systems, together valued at more than $200,000, were contributed to the Yellowstone Park Foundation by Federal Signal.
Yellowstone Faces Technology Challenges
Yet, even with these recent advances, many challenges remain that come along with being in such a vast, and relatively remote, part of the country.
"We spend countless hours trying to determine the location of people who call us for help," said Johnson, "because quite often they don't know where they are, other than the fact they are somewhere in Yellowstone."
Schwartz explained that Yellowstone does not yet have the capability for "E-911," or Enhanced 911, to identify a caller's location. The Park is moving towards that capability, but infrastructure must be updated first to match the technology.
"We love the fact that we're in Yellowstone National Park," said Schwartz, "but it is hard to keep up with the outside world in terms of technology."
In much of the country, when a dispatcher answers a 911 call, the caller's location pops right up on the dispatcher's screen. Right now Yellowstone GIS and Telecomm Staff are laying the groundwork for this type of system by mapping the Park, which is a several-year process. Eventually, an investment in special software will be needed to implement the system.
Yellowstone can't rely on the next best thing—cell phones—to provide locations because that function counts on three cell towers to pinpoint the caller's location. In most of the Park, you are lucky to get cell service from one tower, never mind three.
Another future need of the Dispatch Center is a CAD, or computer-aided dispatch, system used to initiate calls for service, and maintain the status of responding resources in the field. It could greatly increase efficiency and eliminate redundancy, especially in an area that requires so much inter-agency collaboration. Federal funding is available for the basics, but private funding could upgrade it to a state-of-the-art system to further enhance public safety.
"It is going to require a big investment of time and money, but it will be worth it," said Johnson. "When it comes down to it, We just want to get the right resources to the people faster."