It's been ingrained in most of us: when there's an emergency, call 911. As more and more people use cell phones, though, the effectiveness of 911 becomes more problematic. Every cell phone user has experienced the "dropped call," or not being able to dial out from certain locations. Sometimes even close to home it can be hard to make a cell call.
Visitors to the park use cell phones to call in emergencies from two basic types of locations, a frontcountry parking area, campsite, picnic area, or roadside, or from a remote backcountry location.
Often the first type of call is made to report a traffic accident or a major but sudden illness, such as heart trouble or severe difficulty breathing.
The second type of caller frequently reports an injured hiker or climber, or someone ill in the backcountry who can't make it out on their own.
What happens when a cell call is made from the park to 911? Sometimes nothing. There are many locations in the park from which a cell can't be reached. If the call goes out, it may be very weak, covered with static, or break signal frequently. If you make a cell phone call, be prepared for problems. Don't give up. Try from different locations, especially high points.
The 911 call may go to any of a number of call centers, from which they are transferred to the park's Communications Center. We get 911 transfers from our primary PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point), Estes Park Police Department, but transfers also come from Greeley, Colorado, and even Cheyenne , Wyoming. Be prepared to tell a dispatcher exactly where you are. Use park maps for roads and campgrounds. Use topo maps for the backcountry.
Learn as much as you can about the problem. Park dispatchers are trained in emergency dispatch so they can ask the right questions before summoning resources.
Our society is becoming increasingly wireless. In 2000, 45 million 911 calls were made by wireless phone users. Remember that safety in the wilderness is always the responsibility of the individual. But if you do need help and wireless 911 is an option, be prepared to work within the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of wireless communications.