The Transylvania Times -

By Park Baker
Staff Writer 

EMS Facing Tourism Pressures

 

April 24, 2017



The needs of local EMS crews and first responders in response to tourist-related incidents were the topic of conversation at the most recent Transylvania Natural Resources Council (TNRC) meeting.

The council meets once a month with local public land managers, conservationists, wildlife representatives and volunteers to discuss ongoing issues in the county.

Six people were killed in the county last year on local waterfalls, and with visitation expected to public lands only increasing, local first responders are having a hard time keeping up.

Jason Guidry, DuPont State Recreational Forest supervisor, expects more than one million unique visitors to the forest this year.

Bobby Cooper, the Transylvania County EMS director, briefed the council and shared his experiences working as a first responder for the past 25 years in the county.

Cooper also works weekends with the Brevard Fire Department. Cooper said he has responded to many accidents in the county over the years.

The night before his briefing for the TNRC, he was in Gorges State Park until about 3 a.m., responding to a call of a man who was lost and had fallen.

Cooper told the council about some new technology that might soon help first responders find lost or hurt people in the woods, such as drones and helicopters with high-definition cameras.

Council member Peter Chaveas asked Cooper about warning visitors about the potential dangers.

“What we typically find is that it’s not people from around here that get hurt,” said Cooper. “They’re not aware of the dangers of waterfalls. We have lots of information about safety. People just don’t pay attention. There are even signs at some of them, and kiosks at all the trail heads.”

Dave Casey, ranger for Pisgah National Forest, said he was curious how many were impaired with alcohol or other substances during these accidents. Casey mentioned a death at Moore Cove Falls last year and said he believes there were some intoxicating substances involved.

Torry Nergart, a former Gorges State Park ranger, said that, typically, there are no postmortem autopsies performed out of respect to families.

One audience member asked Cooper how he learned about people in need of rescue in the county.

Cooper said cell phone coverage in the county has gotten much better, but his departments have access to several different emergency response radio systems. Ten years ago, victims had to hike out to reach cell service.

Guidry asked Cooper what public land managers could do better to alleviate the burden on local EMS and educate visitors.

Cooper encouraged land managers to continue doing the “good job” they are doing.

Chaveas asked if those rescued get charged a bill for the service. Cooper said that unless they get transferred in an ambulance, there is no charge for a search and rescue operation.

“That’s been a difficult thing to address,” Cooper said. “They have had some success out West in some places.”

TNRC member David Whitmire said that in Colorado part of the hunting license fee goes toward rescue costs. Cooper said that local emergency service agencies just don’t have the resources they need to keep up and said that marketing to the Biking industry has been a huge hit to first responders recently.

“Mountain Biking poses some additional rescue challenges,” he said. “Bikers get out there further in the forest on single-track trails, where we can’t get to them on ATVs.”

An audience member asked if the fees bike race promoters are charged were adequate enough to cover EMS expenses for their time and equipment use.

Cooper said the City of Brevard does have some fee collection and has a review process with the city’s planning office, but that the Forest Service does not currently charge promoters, other than the application permit fee.

“If the event or race is within the city limits, the sponsor of the event has to take on those resources,” he said. “They will set fees, and the fire department charges. There’s been some discussion about doing that in the future.”

EMS volunteer Allison Ballinger, who responded to an injured mountain biker in Turkey Pen several weeks ago, said that even though those fees go to the Forest Service, none of them come back to the emergency services for extraction or rescues.

“More people means more incidents,” she said. “Sometimes when there is an event we’re not even notified. If they are approved by the Forest Service and we’re the primary response, it could be a Saturday. We might not have anyone at the station.”

TNRC Chair Lee McMinn asked if they could put a price tag on the rescues they did last year. Ballinger said the cost for the three-day search and rescue that took place in Turkey Pen a couple of years ago was somewhere between $50,000 and $80,000.

Whitmire asked how many of these people actually need to be rescued. He said that his guide company, Headwaters Outfitters, only calls 911 unless they have to.

“But these folks with sprained ankles, do they really need a search and rescue?” he asked.

Cooper said sometimes those seeking help put on a “big show,” and they get to the parking lot and they say they’re fine, and they drive away.

The Transylvania Times asked Cooper if there are any physical fitness standards for these EMS volunteers.

Cooper said no.

“We take what we can get,” he said. “We try and utilize the (ATVs) and then leave it up the commander to tell a volunteer that they don’t need to be in an area. The fire departments have their physical fitness requirements every year, and we try and monitor it. That’s something we have talked about too — can we as a county government have physical requirements for our staff.”

Ballinger said it makes it hard to reach people in some of these places.

“But we need help, and we don’t have it,” she said. “I have seen folks that ride the ambulance that have no business out in the wilderness,” she said.

Chaveas asked what some of the major challenges there were to put more financial responsibility on the people being rescued.

Cooper said that would take some guidance from the county government and public lands managers to get involved and work together to figure that out.

Ballinger said she trains about 250 hours a year and that does not include response time.

“I am a single mom and I own two businesses, so it’s hard,” she said. “It’s all about funding. Our tax base isn’t huge and that’s where our funding comes from. People aren’t aware of that. Sixty-nine percent of firefighters in the country are volunteers, and that number is shrinking. People want swifter responses, and it’s not because we don’t know the trails or access points, but we get conflicting information.”

TNRC member Mark Tooley asked if there was any discussion in the county for a paid specialized response team.

“Instead of eight different squads, seems like for proficiency and economy it would make sense,” he said.

Cooper added that differences in maps also contribute to confusion.

“People try and give us land marks and they say, ‘where the old house used to be’ or ‘where the station wagon is crashed against the tree,’” he said. “You know not everyone knows about this stuff.”

Ballinger said that there are many trails on the ground that are not on the maps. Cooper said that even some property lines are marked incorrectly.

McMinn asked Cooper how many ATVs he has in the county and what he needed. Cooper said they just bought a Polaris for Toxaway for $20,000, which will need some maintenance each year, and a trailer to haul it around.

McMinn asked if they needed to reimburse Henderson County for their cooperation. Cooper said no, there are mutual agreements between counties.

David McNeill, the county’s assistant manager, said that one of his concerns is the difference in funding from fire district to district.

“There have been some operational changes to how we are doing things,” he said. “I do anticipate some personnel recruit, for those not familiar. As far as fire department funding, it’s just the way it is (and was) set up a long time ago. You have all these fire districts and they’re set up by the tax evaluation of the property taxes in these districts. You have Toxaway with a $700,000 tax base and then you have Balsam Grove with $100,000. There’s a fairly large level of disparity between funding and level of services. The county is actively looking at some funding options that the commissioners can implement that would help standardize the level of services across the county. That will impact these more remote fire departments that are typically charged with these rescues.”

Tooley asked if he was talking about an average tax rate across the county.

McNeill said that is one option. Tooley said 25 percent of his property tax bill was for Cedar Mountain Fire Department, with 13.5 percent property tax.

McNeill said they range from 3 cents to 13.5 percent like Cedar Mountain.

McNeill said the commissioners could also set the fire tax rate at zero and fund it all out of the general fund.

“That’s their option to do that. There’s a variety of these options, and we will be presenting them to the commissioners,” he said.

Business Meeting:

•The Upper French Broad River Festival will be Saturday, June 24. Organizers are looking for volunteers to help with the festival and are hoping to attract people interested in adding educational components. Festival sponsors are also being sought.

• Chaveas asked is there was anything new in respect to the proposed natural resources specialist position. McMinn said he has resubmitted the funding/position request to the county manager and believes there needs to be more cooperation with the state soil and water services, which is where the specialist position would come in.

“The position would pay somewhere between $48,000-$55,000,” he said.

Public land managers:

Guidry said he is in the process of hiring new staff, including law enforcement, and is preparing to get them up to speed for the summer crowds.

Guidry said there has been a series of break-ins in the parking lots, and he encouraged people to use good practices, such as not parking in remote areas and not leaving items visible in the vehicle.

Casey thanked the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy for it work on conserving two pieces of land in the North Mills River tract of Pisgah National Forest. Casey said that even though the federal hiring freeze has been lifted, there is a slower process for hiring.

Whitmire said that this year is the 100th Anniversary of the Pisgah Game Preserve. Whitmire also said that the N.C. Wildlife Commission may be opening a branch in the county, which he said would take some pressure off the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education due to some safety concerns for their archery and gun safety programs. The agency would now be able to host those programs at their new location.

Pisgah Pride Day is May 29. Registration for the event is online at http://www.pisgahconservancy.org.

 
 

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