Digital dead zones get in the way of Colorado’s first responders
This story was originally published in The Colorado Sun.
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.
Expanding broadband access would help. But until there are more cell towers built or fiber-optic cables buried, some first responders across Colorado say they will struggle to access the technology that can speed up response times and potentially help save lives.
Without signal, “you’re back to a pencil and a notepad and what you can see from where you’re standing,” said Alan Colon, president of the Colorado Emergency Management Association.
Officials say the situation is improving, as a multibillion dollar federal effort to extend broadband coverage to emergency responders gets off the ground. A massive infusion of federal infrastructure funding could also help, but details are sparse about how the estimated $100 million to $1 billion meant to close the state’s digital divide will be spent.
“A lot more clarity will come in the next few months,” said Fred Bauters, with the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology.
Experts say technology is often slow to spread to remote areas, in part because private corporations dominate the communications market and have less incentive to invest resources in sparsely populated regions with few potential consumers.
Colorado faces additional challenges because it is bisected by the Rocky Mountains. Mountainous terrain blocks cell and some radio signals, and can be expensive to install fiber-optic cables in, Colon said.
“Unless you put a cell tower on top of every ridge line in the state, which is obviously impossible, that issue is still going to continue,” he said.
The same goes for radio repeaters, which receive and retransmit radio signals so they extend farther.
Elon Musk’s Starlink project and other satellite technologies could help those mountain regions, but they are currently too expensive to be widely used.
A federal network, called FirstNet, is working to connect first responders across the country and is expected to add some 33 cell sites in Colorado before April 2023, focused on areas where coverage gaps were identified in 2017, said Ed Mills, a captain with Evergreen Fire Rescue who works with the Colorado Broadband Office.
The network is meant to operate across agencies and state lines and is designed for first responders, to prevent it from being overloaded by the public during an emergency.
AT&T was awarded a 25-year federal contract to build FirstNet in 2017. By March 2019, the company had installed enough cell sites to provide at least 20% of the final expected coverage, though it varied across states, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Boulder, Chaffee, Custer, Douglas, Garfield, Grand, Gunnison, Kiowa, Larimer, Mineral, Montrose, Routt, Summit and Weld counties are expected to benefit, a spokeswoman for AT&T said.
Garett Doyle, regional manager for FirstNet, said the network will be under construction for the next two decades or so, the lifespan of the federal contract, though hundreds of commercial towers have already been added in Colorado over the last five years.
Population centers, transportation routes and recreation destinations are being prioritized for coverage, he said. The company has also found creative ways to extend coverage to rural areas with less infrastructure, like sending in trucks equipped to connect to FirstNet through satellite.
Difficult terrain, a large amount of federal land and efforts to preserve landscapes are all factors that make it challenging to extend cell coverage to every corner of the state, Doyle said.
“The laws of physics apply to all of us,” he said. “Just because we really need it, doesn’t change the fact that we can’t broadcast through a mountain.”
AT&T recently made permanent a network of temporary cell sites in Glenwood Canyon — once “dark territory” where communications, including outgoing 911 calls, didn’t work, said Justin Kirkland with the Gypsum Fire Protection District.
Kirkland, whose Gypsum Fire Protection District was an early adopter of FirstNet, said first responders also use the network to post public safety updates on social media from the field during emergencies.
“If I were a big department, I could just radio someone (in the office) and have them do things,” he said. “But I don’t have those resources.”
“I can’t just stop into a coffee shop somewhere and plug in,” he added.
Broadband “not ready for primetime”
First responders elsewhere said AT&T coverage is spotty.
Jeff Schanhals, with the Northeast Colorado Regional EMS/Trauma Advisory Council, said after years of being pitched on FirstNet’s potential, the coverage is still inconsistent.
“I could sign up with FirstNet tomorrow and I will have worse coverage than I had yesterday with Verizon,” he said.
There is generally “hit or miss” coverage in Schanhals’ service area, which stretches from Sedgwick County to Jackson County. He had to put a cellphone booster in his Logan County home office, and estimates he pays three times as much for half the internet speed Front Range residents get — nearly $100 per 12 megabytes. If he steps outside his house, he loses cell coverage.
“There’s less people where I live than there are along the Front Range,” he said. “If Verizon says it’s not cost effective for us to put three more towers in to add more capacity, they won’t do it.”
Responders get stronger AT&T coverage in some parts of the state and stronger Verizon coverage in others, said Mills, with the Colorado Broadband Office.
He uses both priority-access Verizon and priority-access FirstNet, through AT&T, programs that help prevent responders’ devices from being bogged down or having their data throttled during an emergency.
“I don’t like to pay for two different devices, and two different SIM chips but that’s kind of the world that we live in right now until we gain the kind of coverage we need across the state,” he said.
For now, public safety officials fall back on radio, which requires equipment that can be costly to purchase and maintain.
Broadband is a crucial “tool in the toolbox that works,” Mills said. “Sometimes but not always.”
“It’s not ready for primetime,” he added.
“Pretty pre-Industrial Revolution there for a while”
Federal broadband funding could bolster weak communications infrastructure that leaves critical services crippled if one thing goes wrong.
People have dug up fiber-optic lines in northeastern Colorado, leaving hospitals unable to transmit radiology reports, X-rays or other medical images for patients that need to be transferred to a larger medical facility, said Schanhals, with the Northeast Colorado Regional EMS/Trauma Advisory Council. It also delays emergency responders, who are required by Colorado to submit patient care reports electronically.
In Caffrey’s Crested Butte district, if nearby broadband lines go down, it can knock out internet access and cell coverage and prevent people from calling anyone on the phone whose number doesn’t share the first six digits.
When fiber lines were cut in 2016 — one time by a road construction crew — the 911 system was dark for hours. It happened again in 2020, when a contractor installing a water line inadvertently cut off internet and cell service to two counties for 10 hours.
“It was pretty pre-Industrial Revolution there for a while,” Caffrey said.
Experts say there should be redundant networks and multiple means of communication to prevent outages and ensure medics and firefighters are dispatched in an emergency, even if one system is down.
The addition of broadband could also help mountainous regions, where even high-frequency radios are not “well adapted” to work, Colon said.
Colorado built up a high-frequency radio system after the Columbine High School massacre, when different agencies were on “different radio systems that couldn’t talk to each other,” creating “paralysis,” one state official told the Denver Post in 2011. Lower frequency VHF radios were more common before.
Low frequencies reach farther than high frequencies, and can better penetrate buildings, bend around objects or reflect off rock faces — making them better suited for forests and hilly areas. But their bandwidth is too low to host a large number of channels and users.
There isn’t an easy fix to the state’s terrain challenges, Colon said.
“Not impressed.” “Pathetic.” “Just terrible.”
A southwest Colorado emergency preparedness coalition has tried to get funding to install reflectors that help radio waves bounce over mountains.
But Spratlen’s office, in Montezuma County, often falls back on a lower-tech fix: Stationing responders atop mountains where the unobstructed air space lets them relay radio messages. It regularly happens during search and rescue operations, Spratlen said.
“We put them all over the place,” he said. “If you don’t have those people, you can’t talk.”
The strategy was used during a five-day search in 2019 that involved a K-9 unit, a Blackhawk helicopter, a Montezuma county Search & Rescue team and a Civil Air Patrol plane. As they fanned out to look for a missing hunter in a mountainous stretch of the San Juan National Forest, one commander traveled to a high elevation to reach the sheriff by phone.
She found a Garmin inReach Personal Locator Beacon, which uses satellite, worked better.
It was “our only contact with the outside world,” said the commander, Vicki Shaffer, who is also the county’s spokeswoman.
Spratlen said they’ve learned to deal with the limitations, but it slows them down.
“Finding the subject, catching the bad guy, putting the fire out,” Spratlen said. “It really inhibits our abilities.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said connectivity has always been an issue in the region. The Dolores River Valley has no communication and is a “major problem.” There are zones where the 800-megahertz radio goes completely dark, even though more radio towers have been added and the service has improved over the years.
He’s “not impressed” with the cell service, he said. Even internet and residential phone lines are “pathetic” and “just terrible,” he said.
“Dropped calls. No service. Getting messages and phone calls … and voicemails an hour or so later,” he said. “I’m somebody who is asked to be on call 24/7. Yeah, it’s frustrating.”
Many law enforcement departments use computer-aided dispatch to prioritize and respond to calls. They need broadband to use it.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s great when it works. It’s great if we can afford it,” Nowlin said.
“I just wish it would get better,” he added. “I’m for anything that would improve it. Trust me.”
Coverage in southwest Colorado
A county over, Evans’ Upper Pine River Fire Protection District has four fire stations in low-cell, low-broadband areas — not ideal for responders there who receive alerts and other critical information through an application called I Am Responding, Evans said. They also use a mapping program called Avenza while fighting wildland fires. It can be downloaded but takes up a large amount of data so most people don’t, he said.
The district has high peaks and ridges, curvy roads and subdivisions tucked into gulches. Parts have cell and internet coverage that is spotty “to put it charitably,” Evans said. Other areas see an influx of tourists and, recently, work-from-anywhere residents — and can have overloaded networks, he said.
His department primarily communicates through radio augmented by a nearby repeater. AT&T recently set up a cell tower in Bayfield, where Evans’ district is centered. He’s hopeful it will improve coverage once it turns on around Christmas Day, he said.
One September night, Evans drove close to a spot in his district where a young girl was crushed by a flipped ATV several years ago. People performed CPR and drove back down the road to get a cell signal to alert first responders but “there was an incredible delay getting help to her,” Evans said, and she died.
“It’s bad along here,” he said, driving down the winding forest roads. “Once you get past right here, you don’t even have any radio contact because this mountain range blocks the (state’s 800 megahertz) system.”
He pointed out how the I Am Responding app pinpoints where the user is, where a fire is and provides a map and any notes that dispatchers put in.
“If you only have radio, then you’re just kind of driving by memory,” he said.
The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments has applied for $12.4 million in grant funding to extend fiber-optic cable to fire stations, government buildings and homes across a five-county region that includes Montezuma County and La Plata County, where Evans’ district is. Miriam Gillow-Wiles, the council’s former executive director, said there are problems with 800-megahertz radio and cellular coverage across the entire area.
The grant application is pending and Gillow-Wiles expects they could break ground next fall.
The project would connect several fire stations in Evans’ Upper Pine River Fire Protection District that currently don’t have fiber-optic cable.
“A horrible situation without that site”
In Larimer County, Sheriff Justin Smith said AT&T and Verizon have brought mobile repeater sites into the area to help during fires and during the devastating 2013 floods. The county, which he said is well-resourced and the sixth-most populous in the state, has also been able to provide his department with small radio repeaters.
There is generally good coverage in suburban and urban parts of the county, and Smith’s office pushed to extend radio coverage up to more remote pockets, an effort that was successful after 20 years and millions of dollars in state grants, he said.
Adding one radio tower southwest of Red Feather Lakes involved 10 years of discussions with the Forest Service, environmental studies and the addition of 12 miles of power lines to keep the radio tower going, Smith said.
The lack of coverage had inhibited first responders’ ability to communicate when the High Park fire tore through the area in 2012, followed by the floods in 2013, he said.
The tower was completed in 2017.
“I can tell you, when we had Cameron Peak last year, it would have been a horrible situation without that site,” Smith said.