Summit County officials say heavy weekend traffic hindering first responders
As residents and tourists from across the state sat frustrated among a sea of crawling bumpers on Summit County’s roadways last weekend, emergency workers struggled to navigate their way through the chaos.
Like most motorists who chose to brave Interstate 70, Highway 9 or the backstreets of Breckenridge on Saturday, fire engines and ambulances found themselves stacked against rows of backed-up traffic, and officials are concerned the problem is becoming a major public safety issue.
“Without a doubt it was the most challenging traffic day that I’ve ever seen,” said Jim Keating, chief at the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. “People who have been in the organization longer than me said it was the first time they’d ever experienced anything of that magnitude. Last year during the snow sculptures we had a situation and traffic was fairly heavy, but it was maneuverable. We were able to get through it and deal with it. But between about 3:30 and 7 p.m. last Saturday, it was impossible to move hardly anywhere.”
There’s a number of explanations for why traffic may have hit the saturation point, most notably what Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino called a “perfect storm” of weekend attractions in the area, including snow sculptures in Breckenridge, Ice Castles in Dillon, the X Games in Aspen, the Spontaneous Combustion Bonfire in Frisco and premier snow conditions at the resorts.
“I think we live in a wonderful destination, but the infrastructure wasn’t designed for volumes like this,” said Berino. “Nobody ever envisioned what we’d grow into. I think that’s something our community needs to start monitoring, and see if there are any viable solutions. But the problem is not going to get better. … there’s special events going on almost every weekend. And we’ve noticed that increased traffic is inhibiting our ability to respond promptly to certain calls at certain times.”
The biggest trouble area may be Breckenridge, where Keating noted things nearly got out of control for Red, White & Blue on Saturday. The department operates two advanced life support medical units from its downtown Breckenridge station, one from its station in the Grand Lodge on Peak 7 and a reserve unit at the station in Blue River. By about 5 p.m., with all of their regular units already deployed — and fighting their way back from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center through gridlock on Highway 9 — the reserve unit was called into service, and was immediately sent to a medical emergency at Carter Park, along with an engine from the Tiger Road Fire Station.
The engine became lodged in traffic, and aborted the call, forcing the shift battalion chief from the downtown station to respond to the park to wait for the Blue River medical unit. Not only was traffic severely affecting response times (Keating noted that responses took up to two-thirds longer than the department’s normal six to eight minute response time), but for about 30 or 45 minutes after 5 p.m., the department was left with no resources left to respond in case of a major fire, accident or hazardous materials incident.
“Everywhere we were turning was a closed door,” said Keating. “We were able to serve every emergency call received, but it was uncomfortable for us knowing that there was a 30-45 minute period that if anything big happened, we were in trouble.”
Adding to the issue is that normally during major events that stress one department’s resources, automatic mutual aid kicks in and help from other departments will arrive. But when immovable traffic is the major factor, that option can fold quickly.
“We couldn’t have gotten to Breckenridge in a timely manner if we wanted to,” said Berino. “If there’s nowhere for the cars to move it’s not really the drivers’ faults. It’s bumper to bumper. We can turn on all the sirens we want, but the cars don’t have the ability to move out of the way.”
Other officials, including those in law enforcement around the county, reciprocated the worries of the fire districts. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said that his phone was ringing off the hook from concerned citizens around the county wondering about safety and highway traffic spilling into side streets and subdivisions.
“There was nowhere to go,” said FitzSimons. “If there was an emergency, there was realistically nowhere to go. … I think the community should be very concerned. I’m very concerned whenever we can’t get to a 911 call in a timely manner.”
But potential solutions to the issue, especially as the full-time population continues to grow and the county’s shoulder seasons continue to shrink, are few and far between. There are some longer-term fixes such as the potential of adding additional shoulders along roadways in trouble areas so emergency teams could get through, working toward a high-speed transit system to keep drivers off I-70 or expanding the number of emergency responders in areas around the county. But for now, emergency officials are left to their own devices.
Keating noted that Red, White & Blue is currently reassessing where it places its resources during high volume traffic periods, so that units could be deployed faster from areas they don’t expect to be gridlocked, and areas with multiple routing options so drivers can try to avoid the busiest areas. Berino called for the formation of a taskforce with representatives from fire, emergency medical, law enforcement, the Colorado Department of Transportation and county officials to help find potential solutions for the problem.
But regardless of what those solutions may be, there’s one thing that officials agree on: the problem isn’t going away on its own.
“We know it will happen again,” said Keating. “We’ll do whatever we can in our power to prepare for that. … Police, fire, the sheriff’s office and EMS will all have to work together to deal with this, and ultimately find a solution.”
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