Breckenridge skier traffic ties up police, but residents are stepping in to help out | SummitDaily.com

Breckenridge skier traffic ties up police, but residents are stepping in to help out

Some 30 days a year during ski season, nearly every single Breckenridge police officer is occupied with traffic control. A new group of volunteers hopes to lift some of that burden and free up officers for other types of policing.

It's well known to visitors and locals alike that when the lifts at Breckenridge Ski Resort slow to a halt on weekends, so does Park Avenue.

On roughly 30 days a year, the lines of cars and throngs of pedestrians are so large that nearly every on-duty Breckenridge police officer is needed to manage the chaotic exodus from the slopes — a burden that limits their ability to respond to calls in a timely manner.

What's more, the times when all but one or two officers are occupied with traffic control also tend to be the busiest for other police business.

"That's a pretty busy time for calls," police chief Dennis McLaughlin said. "There are accidents and a lot of different things going on, so we have to stack calls and prioritize the most important ones. That's not ideal, and it's not good customer service."

By next season, however, that could be different. Town residents are stepping up to serve on a volunteer force that helps direct traffic and corral pedestrians during those busy hours, freeing up cops to focus on other priorities.

"Rather than having these full officers doing this mundane work, we thought we could just get some people with vests on to help out, because that to me is a waste of talent," said Hal Vatcher, one of the two residents in the department's nascent volunteer corps.

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Two Saturdays ago, he was out in a fluorescent police volunteer vest assisting the cops for the first time.

"It was interesting watching how many pedestrians ignore the crosswalks," he said. "The real objective is just to try to keep traffic flowing on Park Avenue. It's amazing how many people cross there. And it wasn't even really busy that day."

Vatcher said pedestrians can actually be one of the biggest impediments to traffic flow, and one of the best ways to manage that is to corral them into large groups and release them in waves.

The program was initiated several months ago, and participants undergo an interview and background check before some light training. The program is small now, but Vatcher and McLaughlin are hoping to expand it soon.

"We're walking before we run," Vatcher said. "It's official and we've signed all the paperwork, so now we're kind of figuring out what exactly we're going to do with it."

While relief for traffic direction is certainly a priority, there are plenty of other things volunteers could do to help out the department, from data entry to IT work and even help with lost and found calls.

"One thing we're going to try to do is look at what expertise an individual brings and what things they might be best-equipped to help us out with," McLaughlin said.

Like heavy ski traffic days, the town's many special events can be all-hands-on-deck situations for police. McLaughlin hopes that a group of volunteers might be able to help them man barricades and walk around assisting people with more minor issues.

Unlike actual officers, of course, volunteers don't have any authority to detain people. In addition, when they help out with traffic control, there will always be at least one or two officers on scene to coordinate the work.

"We're not authorized to do any actual police work," Vatcher said. "But people look at that vest and think you've got some authority. And they know it's probably a good idea to listen to us anyway."

Breckenridge has a small police department with relatively limited resources given the huge volumes of visitors it receives. As the program expands, McLaughlin hopes that it will help ease some of the burden — particularly on weekend powder days.

"We are expending a lot of hours getting traffic cleared, and hopefully having volunteers will help us with that," he said. "Over time, we think those volunteer hours are really going to stack up."

Residents interested in volunteering can call the Breckenridge Police Department at 970-453-2941 for more information.

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