By Stephen Smoot
Pendleton County banks more and more on adventure tourism to expand the economy and elevate the county’s prestige to potential visitors. Obstacles in the path of emergency responders, however, could prove disastrous, according to Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County emergency services coordinator.
Last weekend, that fear almost materialized. James D. Wheeler, a 56-year-old tourist from Marietta, Ohio, was reported missing at approximately 11:51 p.m. on May 20 by family. He and his son, along with friends, had gone hiking and fishing along Laurel Run. This stream flows into the North Fork at Judy Gap and extends westward into the rugged mountains of the area.
Observers reported seeing Wheeler at 5:35 in the evening on Saturday.
Nine separate agencies from West Virginia and Virginia, along with concerned citizens, joined to search. With temperatures dipping into the 30s in parts of the area, ground crews struggled through the night to find him with no success.
Fortunately, “at approximately 1p.m. Sunday, Deputy Sheriff R. W. Kelly of the Highland County Sheriff’s Dept. reported having found Wheeler along South Christian Run Trail, which would be the nearest access point to Laurel Run, south of where WV personnel last searched for him,” according to a release from Pendleton County Emergency Management.
Although tragedy was averted by hard work, rescue workers struggled with lack of access to modern communications. In a letter to elected officials and other stakeholders, Gillespie explained, “We had little to NO communications abilities due to this location being near the heart of the signal pattern null required by the NRQZ to protect Green Bank.”
Gillespie described a “daisy chain” style effort cobbled together to find Wheeler. Vehicles could not access the remote region. Rescue workers formed a chain of individuals standing near the broadcast limits of the radios so that they could relay information in and out of the forest, connecting first responders to the incident command post.
Laura Brown, Pendleton and Grant county economic development director, shared that her own daughter recently experienced a severe allergic reaction. Brown stated that she called Tina Eye from Pendleton County Emergency Response, who then gave her advice on how to proceed. She said that “we decided on Petersburg because of the lack of cell service to Harrisonburg should we need help quickly.”
Brown then explained that “because we are residents in this small town and know our community, we were able to act quickly. Visitors to the area do not have the luxury of personally knowing emergency responders or about the lack of cellular connectivity. As we actively work towards advancing tourism, we must to be aware of the importance of coverage and emergency services to our tourists.”
Gillespie also shared that “last month we recently responded to a rural residence where a man had his fingers entrapped in a piece of machinery. He was far from civilization and he was alone, with nobody around for miles.” The caller had almost no cell service, but fortunately could call. Gillespie noted that had he been in an area with no service, the man could have been trapped for a day or more.
Tourism will continue to draw those looking for adventure, often in remote and challenging areas. Gillespie offers two solutions. “One, is a complete elimination of the National Radio Quiet Zone, or at a minimum, a huge modernization of the restrictions, or a long-term, yearly funding mechanism to help us come up with compliant solutions.”
Next, he stated, “Second, it would be wonderful if the federal government, the one requiring the NRQZ, provide us funding to purchase a mobile repeater trailer apparatus so that we could deploy some form of communication in such areas.”
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