VERLOT — A lifesaving pay phone will remain at the Verlot ranger station, at least for now.
Frontier Communications on Tuesday confirmed it had removed the phone and then decided to bring it back.
The phone went live again by 4:15 p.m., according to a spokesman.
The announcement followed a story in Sunday’s Daily Herald in which police, firefighters, Search & Rescue crews and 911 officials all shared concerns about the loss of the phone.
Since then, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers has asked his staff to see how the county might help with long-term plans for the phone. Somers worked at the ranger station for three years in a previous job.
The pay phone “serves a vital purpose for both residents and visitors, and needs to be saved,” he said Tuesday. “Lives literally depend on it.”
The phone is at the U.S. Forest Service’s Verlot Public Service Center, about 11 miles east of Granite Falls. It is often the best option for reaching 911 from the Mountain Loop Highway, which has little to no cellphone coverage.
Most emergency calls along the highway have been made from that phone, including those reporting deadly collapses at the Big Four Ice Caves. The ranger station has a landline inside, but limited office hours.
The pay phone will stay in service “until we have the opportunity to again fully discuss options with the U.S. Forest Service and local officials and assist them to implement an affordable solution,” Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza said.
“I’m happy with the decision,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Christopher Ferreira, who is the Granite Falls police chief. “With the phone being taken out, I think it was a safety concern for emergency services and folks who use the backcountry.”
Sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom works closely with Snohomish County Volunteer Search & Rescue. He said he was heartened by the “outstanding” development. The outdoor community has been watching the issue as well, Wikstrom said.
“I think it’s great, while interested parties consider what possible solutions are out there,” he said. “I don’t know what those would be.”
Frontier owns about 350 pay phones in Washington. Many are being removed because of the proliferation of mobile phones. The company notified the Forest Service of its plans for the Verlot site in September. Frontier suggested the Forest Service add an outdoor phone or a wireless access point.
Without any kind of public phone at Verlot, it likely would take a hiker more than 30 minutes of driving to get from the Big Four trailhead back into town to use a cellphone to contact 911. There’s a local volunteer fire department, but the closest police are in Granite Falls and rescue teams with special equipment have to arrive from around the county.
The delays can be dangerous when people are seriously injured.
A new outdoor phone would cost the Forest Service about $500 for the first year, according to official estimates. Changes within a federal agency take time, and the Forest Service is in the middle of budget cuts. Plans years ago to install another phone at Camp Silverton, closer to the ice caves, didn’t go anywhere.
Local leaders at the Forest Service could not be reached for comment for this story.