As with any emergency worker, National Park Rangers depend on their radio systems for not only communications but safety. In many remote areas rangers work alone and there is either no backup or it is a long distance away. On The Blue Ridge Parkway a park ranger calling for assistance was lucky to get help within 45 minutes. In most cases it was over an hour. In one instance I held three armed escaped convicts at gun point for more than three hours waiting for back up to arrive.
There are two essential elements of a radio system that make it work.
The first is the hardware made up of radios, repeater towers, reliable power sources, and dispatch consoles.
The second part is the park ranger on one end and the dispatcher on the other. Some parks have professional dispatch centers, others make use of partner agencies through agreements, and many rangers in smaller areas are out there with no dispatcher at all. For much of my career when called out at night I had to depend on my wife staying up to dispatch for me. This was hard on her since as a teacher she had to face a classroom of elementary students the next morning. I remember one of those long nights she just could not stay awake and I kept calling and calling on the radio with no answer. Finally my constant static over the radio woke up another ranger at home 200 miles away and he was able to make some calls for me.
Trained and experienced dispatchers are essential for not only calling for help but to provide vital information to park rangers in the field. It is the dispatcher that lets the ranger know if they are stopping a stolen car, talking to a wanted felon, or giving information that allows the ranger to plan for an appropriate response to an emergency.
The reader’s first impression on this subject may be, “why don’t they just use cell phones?” Even today in our high tech society cellular telephone coverage is not available in all areas. Many locations of National Parks are off the main cellular grids and coverage is inconsistent and in many cases nonexistent. The Blue Ridge Parkway has many long stretches of dead zones with no cell phone availability.
If either link in this communications system is not functioning to its full potential the park ranger in the field is face with an increased exposure to danger and reduces their effectiveness to provide emergency response and care for visitors in need. I do not believe that it would be overstated to say that a radio communications system is one of if not the most important tool that a park ranger has available to ensure their safety and ability to accomplish the mission of the National Park Service.
With the technology available today no National Park Ranger should be without full radio communications with a professional dispatch center. But there are still parks with inadequate or inefficient radio systems that leave park rangers in situations where they are unable to communicate with the outside world. Budget and lack of money are the common reason for this deficiency.
The individual ranger is then forced to make tough decisions on responding to threats to their personal and public safety and develop extraordinary skills to survive.