VERLOT — A rare event in the United States took place in Verlot on Oct. 9: A new pay phone was installed at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station.
It puts to rest nearly a year of uncertainty.
On the Mountain Loop Highway, where lack of service transforms the ubiquitous cellphone into a paperweight, pay phones become an important public safety asset. So when Frontier Communications announced plans to remove its Verlot pay phone in November, firefighters and police became alarmed.
Frontier agreed to reinstall the phone and to keep it going indefinitely, but with the informal agreement that someone else would bring a more permanent solution.
Snohomish County and U.S. Forest Service agreed that they would foot the bill for a new phone. The county is paying the annual service costs to the tune of $500 per year, while the forest service paid for the equipment, totaling about $1,000.
The phone doesn’t accept coins, but it allows for free 911, local and 1-800 calls. A calling card can be used for long distance calls.
The county and the forest service publicly announced the phone’s installation Monday.
“Working with our local partners, we are proud to keep this critical public safety tool available for those instances when emergency services are needed,” said Colton Whitworth, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, in a news release. “We encourage the public to enjoy the beautiful and remote areas under our management, and this phone provides an extra level of security for all.”
Erica Keene, the forest service’s Verlot corridor manager, was first notified that Frontier was removing the phone in September 2017. She said she looked at the options, but with declining budgets, found that the U.S. Forest Service couldn’t pay for the phone by itself.
In December, Keene brought her concerns to an advisory board meeting for the county’s emergency management division. From there, the county and the forest service came to an agreement to split the cost.
“We all recognized the need, as public servants, that this phone needs to be here,” Keene said.
The county will continue paying for the phone service into the foreseeable future, said Vicki Thoroughman, manager of the county’s emergency management division. The agencies might reassess that should reliable cellular service come to the area, but that may not happen for some time.
The Mountain Loop Highway provides access to some of the region’s most popular, beautiful and dangerous outdoor destinations. Nearby Heather Lake, Lake 22 and Mount Pilchuck all offer idyllic scenery. The Big Four Ice Caves alone draw some 50,000 visitors annually. Yet there is little to no cellphone coverage between the highway’s bookends at Granite Falls and Darrington.
Most 911 calls along the Loop — including those reporting deadly collapses at the ice caves — come from the pay phone at the Verlot Public Service Center. People have used the Verlot phone 120 times for emergencies since 2016, according to Snohomish County 911, the 911 provider for much of the county.
While that number may not sound like a lot, many of those calls are made in critical situations where a fast response could mean life or death, said Kurt Mills, who oversees Snohomish County 911.
The importance is not lost on public officials.
“The Verlot ranger station phone has saved countless lives in the past, and we are committed to preserving this important public safety tool,” said Dave Somers, Snohomish County executive, in a news release.
After tightening the screws Oct. 9, county technician Richard Bake picked up the new phone for the first time. He could hear a dial tone. The phone had service — something public officials weren’t expecting for maybe another week.
He decided to place the first call: 911. He told a person on the other end of the line that he wanted to test if the phone would work.
There was a pause as the operator responded.
“Thank you,” Bake said. Then he put the phone back on the hook.