VERLOT — When someone needs to call 911 from the Mountain Loop Highway, the best option often has been the pay phone at the Verlot ranger station.
Now the phone is slated for removal, causing alarm for police and firefighters.
The Mountain Loop Highway provides access to some of the region’s most popular, beautiful and dangerous outdoor destinations. 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. The U.S. Forest Service owns the ranger station, which is about 11 miles east of Granite Falls.
“That is the only lifeline in that area,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Christopher Ferreira, who is the local chief of police.
“We know through some heartbreaking tragedies, the closest lifeline to 911 is at the Forest Service office,” said Kurt Mills, who oversees SNOPAC, the 911 provider for much of the county.
The ranger station has phones inside, but operates with limited hours, especially during the off-season.
Frontier Communications owns about 350 pay phones in Washington, including the one at Verlot. Most see minimal use, and public agencies don’t pick up the costs, spokesman Javier Mendoza said.
Mendoza declined to say how many phones are being decommissioned in Snohomish County. New technologies, including cellphones, have nearly eliminated the demand, he said.
The decisions are based on “usage rates, condition, safety and other considerations,” he said.
Frontier has suggested the Forest Service seek “creative alternatives,” namely adding an outdoor phone or a wireless access point. The Forest Service, the sheriff’s office and other emergency responders all have shared their concerns and asked for more time.
A new phone would cost the Forest Service about $500 for the first year, not counting equipment, said Erica Keene, the Verlot corridor manager. That might not be an easy sell. The agency is in the middle of budget cuts.
Any kind of phone would get used, though, according to 911 data.
Since December 2015, the Verlot phone has been used 25 times to call 911. The next closest pay phone is at the Mountain View Inn, about one mile west of the ranger station. That phone is used less often. It also is supposed to be removed.
Mills, the SNOPAC director, learned about the pay phone situation in September from Tim Bond, fire chief for the volunteer Robe Valley Fire District. Mills immediately contacted the sheriff’s office. He was thinking about the ice caves. Rocks, ice and snow are constantly falling down the mountain face, and people don’t always heed the warning signs to stay clear.
Three people have died from collapses at the caves since 2010. And many other accidents happen along the Loop, where recreation includes trails, campgrounds, rivers and lakes.
The loss of the Verlot phone also could compound existing emergency communication problems. First, it takes people time to get somewhere they can call 911. Then, first responders have to gather and get to work. Regular police radios don’t work that far into the woods. Many of the major operations require helicopters, which introduce challenges with radio frequencies.
Let’s say a hiker needs to report something bad at Big Four.
She needs to run a mile to the trailhead and then make the 15-minute drive to Verlot, unless she comes across a field ranger. Cellphone service isn’t available for another 9 miles after the ranger station, almost to town. Once 911 is contacted, a police car is often 30 minutes away. The Robe Valley fire station’s voicemail informs callers that it isn’t staffed around the clock.
The volunteer firefighters are close, but they need that notification from 911, said Bond, the fire chief.
“If we can get the call, we can get up there pretty quick,” he said. Crews from Granite Falls and Getchell will follow. However, rescue teams with special heavy duty equipment — the kind used to remove people from an ice collapse — face longer travel times.
“I just hate to see yet another loss of communication up there with already terribly limited communication,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who works closely with Snohomish County Volunteer Search & Rescue.
Wikstrom is concerned about the “golden hour,” the window of time after a traumatic injury when a life is most likely to be saved.
On the Mountain Loop, “we’re already chasing that golden hour,” Wikstrom said. “It’s frustrating to have the clock running out even further when someone is in terrible trouble out there.”
Visitors are unlikely to stop at houses or cabins on the way back to town, Wikstrom said. Property owners in such remote quarters aren’t always welcoming. The ranger station is the most logical place to seek help, especially for tourists unfamiliar with the area, he said.
After the fatal collapse at the ice caves in 2015, there was talk of installing a phone at Camp Silverton, which is between the Big Four trailhead and Verlot. Not much progress has been made on that front, pending the future of the campsite, which remains closed, said Keene, with the Forest Service.
For now, she, Wikstrom and others keep checking in with one another. They keep asking whether the phone is still there.