There are some areas in Southwest Colorado, where cellphone and radio reception “dead zones” make first response in emergencies – and asking for help – nearly impossible.
Rural, mountainous agencies have a harder time receiving and transmitting radio signals than agencies in other areas of Colorado. Southwestern agency officials say when the state rolled out its statewide channel, 800 MHz, it ran out of money before the region was fully covered. (The state says Southwest Colorado did benefit from the funding.)
“Not having reliable communications for people to reach us, and for us to be able to reach additional help, is never a good thing,” said Sean Smith, La Plata County sheriff. “It’d be nice if we could get to where most of the state of Colorado is on one radio system that works everywhere.”
Fire and law enforcement agencies know where radio reception is challenging and have learned how to approach emergencies in those areas.
Emergency response agencies in Southwest Colorado must purchase radios worth thousands of dollars to communicate on multiple frequencies.
Each district faces different challenges. For the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, the problem areas are around Vallecito Reservoir, Transfer Park north of Lemon Reservoir and along certain county roads. For the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, one of the biggest concerns is La Plata Canyon. Durango Fire Protection District said the Animas Valley north of Durango has reception issues. Silverton San Juan Fire and Rescue Authority said Molas Pass, Red Mountain Pass and most backcountry areas have dead zones.
The dead zones in the San Juan Mountains make it difficult to receive vital updates from dispatchers during emergencies. In some areas, first responders can be isolated as soon as they step away from their vehicles. In rare instances, reception can impact response times.
The system and the workarounds
After Sept. 11, the federal government launched an effort to have one radio channel that all first responders could use, called the 800 MHz Spectrum. Colorado adopted 800 MHz in 2008 and designated $40 million to help agencies switch to new hardware and software. However, the 800 MHz system doesn’t work as well in the mountains as it does on the plains.
“I can hear the 800 MHz radio better in Denver than I can down here, even though I’m on a local channel,” said Brock Fortson, Upper Pine fire captain.
Bruce Evans, Upper Pine chief, said the need for better coverage is critical in parts of his agency’s district.
A high-level map showing predictive mobile radio coverage in the region as of 2019. Areas in green have 800 MHz coverage, while areas in white do not. Areas with coverage may have pockets, not shown, where there is no coverage.
Courtesy of the Colorado Office of Information Technology
In 2019, a young girl died after an ATV accident near Lemon Reservoir. The closest cell coverage was a long hike away, and it was an hour before Upper Pine River Fire Protection District responders could reach the girl, Evans said.
In Silverton, the fire agency is faced with many gaps in coverage. Yet, the number of outdoor enthusiasts is only increasing.
“I’m vehement about this,” said Michael Maxfield, assistant fire chief. “… The San Juans are beautiful, but if you blink, they will kill you.”
Silverton doesn’t rely on the 800 MHz system, he said. Instead, it uses different channels, like a VHF network, sets up truck-to-truck relays and relies on savvy responders who understand radio signals.
In parts of western La Plata County, officers can find themselves isolated once they leave their patrol vehicle because their hand-held radios only receive 800 MHz, Sheriff Smith said.
“In an area where 800 is not available … you better hope the cellphone works,” Smith said. “You’re out there unless you can make it back to your car.”
Fire and law enforcement agencies have been trying to improve communication systems for at least 10 years in Southwest Colorado, but they are gridlocked in bureaucratic red tape and differing priorities.
They say they need more – and better – reception towers to fill in coverage gaps, and the Southwest Regional Communications Group has been leading the effort.
But the group, which consists of multiple fire and law enforcement agencies in five counties and two Native American tribes, is divided over priorities.
In 2018, the group had a legislative victory. The state designated millions in state funding to fill in coverage gaps.
However, each tower costs at least $1 million, and it has to be located on a perfectly situated site, with the right height, power availability and lightning protection. Then agencies have to decide who owns the tower, buys it, leases it and maintains it.
“We are struggling to get considered for the money because we don’t have perfect sites that are available according to the criteria that they’re looking for,” said Hal Doughty with Durango Fire.
“Different agencies are frustrated with different things,” Doughty said. For him, “it’s frustrating that there’s money sitting there earmarked for a project that we need that we can’t get.”