Digital dead zones getting in the way of Colorado’s first responders |

Digital dead zones getting in the way of Colorado’s first responders

Technology can now connect a patient to a doctor over video, but basic communication is still difficult for first responders in rural areas

Shannon Najmabadi
The Colorado Sun
Brian Leewitt, Deputy Fire Chief for Upper Pines River Fire Protection District, loads Avenza Maps on a tablet. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

BAYFIELD — There’s a digital dead zone in Fire Chief Bruce Evans’ 282-square-mile district in southwest Colorado, right up where the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District brushes against wildland and national forest. No cell coverage. No internet access. Even the radio goes quiet.

For Sean Caffrey, at the Crested Butte fire department, signal cuts out along a 20-mile stretch on the way to the closest hospital. If the patient in an ambulance deteriorates, medics can’t alert the hospital’s small staff to prepare until they regain cell service, 3 minutes before arriving at Gunnison Valley Health.

And in Montezuma County, emergency manager Jim Spratlen said communications are so spotty, responders frequently drive onto mountaintops to get signal or “walk super fast” to hand-deliver urgent messages when radios and cellphones fail.

“People communicating by relay, having runners sending messages to different people,” Spratlen said. “There’s some times we’re using techniques and tactics that we did back in the 1960s.”

Despite technological advances that make it possible to connect a patient to a doctor over video or receive a live feed from a drone, basic communication problems still plague emergency responders who drive ambulances, fight fires or enforce the law in rural areas not covered by cell towers and fiber-optic cables.

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