Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4th A Park Ranger’s Perspective

July 4th brings visions of family gatherings, cookouts, and fireworks in celebration of our Nation’s birth. For thirty three years as a National Park Ranger July 4th only meant extra hours of work, details away from home and family, and dealing with potentially life threatening situations. Visitation on the July 4th weekend is generally one of the busiest in parks and is compounded by the vast number of large scale events that are planned in such areas as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, The Statue of Liberty, The Mall in Washington, D.C., Mount Rushmore, and the Arch in St. Louis. All these locations and many more are managed and under the responsibility of the National Park Service.

My first experience with National Park July 4th celebrations was at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in 1975. This was the preparatory year for the larger scale events to take place during the Bicentennial of 1976. Fort McHenry was the location of a two day 48 hour entertainment extravaganza featuring nationally known celebrities hosted by Ed McMahon and televised throughout the world. Crowds at any one time were estimated at 75,000 people. There were numerous incidents such as a drunk that was going around kicking sleeping people in the face with a following crowd egging him on, purse and back pack thefts, drunks trying to scale the Fort walls, injuries from fireworks being set off by the crowd, and more.

The following year there was a larger event at Fort McHenry that was followed by a visit to Independence National Historic Park by Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.

I spent numerous July 4th holidays in Philadelphia assisting with security during large scale events that drew huge crowds. One year thousands of people tried to leave the area at once following the fireworks display. The new parking garage in the park did not have sufficient ventilation to handle the carbon monoxide produced from so many vehicles being started at once. Many people became overcome with the fumes and were unconscious. Before the fire department could work their way through the throngs of people and traffic, Park Rangers had to rescue as many as possible without respiratory equipment. Several park employees became overcome and almost lost consciousness.

On another July 4th at Independence NHP an audience approaching 70,000 people was crowded in the park enjoying a performance by the Four Seasons. A huge thunderstorm came out of nowhere and people stampeded immediately trying to all get out of the rain at once. A strong gust of wind then blew down the scaffolding and lighting onto the stage and the band. I was stationed across the street behind the stage at the Liberty Bell Pavilion. My partner and I had to push our way upstream through the panic stricken throng to get to the stage. A screaming woman grabbed me and shouted that her friend was having a seizure and was being trampled. I was able to recruit some others to link arms and provide protection for the patient as another was sent in an attempt to find an EMT. I had to shout and threaten the crazed crowd as the patient continued to thrive on the ground. Finally help arrived and I could move onto the debacle on the stage.

Following the attacks of 9/11 there was legitimate fear of additional terrorist attacks during July 4th events. Since the National Park Service hosts some of the most visible of such events, security concerns were elevated. During this period I was called upon to assist on the national incident command (Area Command for you ICS trained folks) in Washington, D.C. to coordinate security resources and intelligence nationwide. This necessitated my being away from home for a month including all the planning prior to the July 4th Holiday.

But even those parks that do not host major events feel the effects of July 4th. Campgrounds are generally full, a lot of alcohol is consumed by visitors, and in many instances park ranger staffs are reduced due to personnel being drawn to increase security at the major events.

These are just a few of my National Park Service July 4th memories.
On assignment at the Statue of Liberty July 4th 1986

Now that I am retired I no longer have to worry for months about the upcoming July 4th holiday or where I will be. I can actually attend fireworks displays and not be concerned about where people are going to park, do they have enough fire suppression equipment on hand, will the ambulances have access to evacuate injured people, who is going to try to blow us all up this year, and the list goes on and on.

So as I sit back and enjoy my holiday with family and friends, my hat is off to all the hard working National Park Service employees out there away from their families making this July 4th exciting, entertaining, and most importantly SAFE.

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