Cell coverage, distance limit Turnagain Pass 911 response

GIRDWOOD, Alaska Seward Highway along Turnagain Pass is an incredibly scenic drive, but when wrecks happen it's a challenging spot for first first responders.

Girdwood Fire and Rescue is tasked with covering five square miles in Girdwood and responding to accidents on Seward Highway to the southern end of the Municipality of Anchorage at Ingram Creek.

However, the department frequently has to leave its service area to respond to crashes in the Kenai Peninsula Borough in Hope, Turnagain Pass, and as far south as Mile 50 on Seward Highway.

"It's always a challenge making sure that we have enough resources that stay in our home community, the community of Girdwood so they can respond to medical emergencies there. And we're also sending crews out into other service areas so that people are provided support for it they have a car accident," Girdwood Fire Chief Michelle Weston said.

Weston says the volunteer department responds to around four to five calls out in Turnagain Pass or beyond each month. It can take crews more than an hour to get to some calls.

There is a volunteer fire department equipped only for fire response in Moose Pass and EMS in Cooper Landing, but the next fire department with extrication equipment is in Bear Creek.

"What you'll see this summer is if we go into calls in Turnagain Pass, we're going to do the life safety things we normally do. We're going to make sure that the patients are extricated, we're going to transport patients and then we're going to pull back once the life risk is gone," Weston said. "We're going to pull back to our service area in the Girdwood valley and along the highway to Ingram Creek to make sure that those citizens of Anchorage are supported."

In addition to the great distance, first responders have to deal with poor cell phone coverage create delays when dispatching crews.

"What happens is if people get into an accident, they're often in an accident in an area where there's no cell service. So they often have to get into another vehicle, or have a passerby call to aid that person when they have come down into an area of cell service," Weston said. "When that happens there's a delay in fire trucks and ambulances getting to them, there's a delay in knowing what the location where the accident is, and sometimes when we get there and we would've drive 45 minutes to an hour, the patient has already gone with a passerby."

Weston suggest that people who travel the route frequently consider investing in a satellite phone.

Two emergency call boxes along the route will connect people to 911 dispatch in case of emergency. One is located at the Turnagain Pass snow machine parking lot. Another is located at the interchange for Hope.

"We're all Alaskans and we have to look after each other. And so that goes for being prepared when you do a trip, but also looking after each other if you come across another person that in an accident," Weston said.