Marooned by modern technology

Local closures now linked to state mapping system

On a frigid, blustery Tuesday morning in the middle of December, a seemingly endless winter storm, for days plaguing those in the region ensnared in its path, continued to slowly ravage its way across the state.

By mid-morning, another series of squalls abruptly blanketed the frozen landscape. A treacherous concoction of wet, heavy snow coupled with near-hurricane-force winds tightened its grip with blizzard-like conditions throughout much of Sweetwater County, rendering the interstate and many of the county's roadways impassable.

The state transportation department warned of the potential for prolonged closures. Some had already been stranded for days.

Wyoming was officially closed. Estimated reopening time, unknown. Travelers were getting antsy.

A call for help

One of the first calls came in from dispatch to Sweetwater County Sheriff's Office at around noon.

A family of three from Wisconsin were trying to make their way back to Rock Springs from Casper. In an unintentional attempt to avoid the Interstate-80 closure east of Rock Springs, their SUV's GPS navigation system unwittingly diverted them onto a seasonally unmaintained dirt road across an arctic tundra no longer recognizable as the county's Red Desert. It was only a matter of time before they found themselves stuck in a

ditch in their Ford Explorer, now covered in a foot of fresh, blowing snow. They were nearly 40 miles north of the interstate, between Rock Springs and Rawlins, in the middle of nowhere.

With a dwindling supply of gas in their tank, little to no reliable cell service and their toddler in tow, the sheriff's office immediately activated its search and rescue team. Assembled at headquarters, the team was briefed on the rescue plan, loaded the Hägglunds and other necessary equipment, and carefully set out northeast in subzero, whiteout conditions on a near 90-mile trek to some of the farthest, most remote reaches

of the county.

This was neither the first call nor search and rescue's maiden voyage of the day. They already rescued a middle-aged, diabetic woman and her husband from New York. The two were traveling from their home on the East Coast to Washington state to pick up their college-aged daughter for the holidays.

The calls kept coming in.

One at 3 p.m. Another at 4 p.m. Then another at around 6:30 p.m. Rescuers would also encounter more people on the frontlines who had simply been unable to call for help due to poor cell service.

For those stuck on the roads in weather conditions as extreme as those experienced that day, the consequences of every decision - such as whether to stay or leave the car - can prove far more precarious than expected, said Search and Rescue Commander and Detention Center Lt. Rich Kaumo.

"In those conditions, even a healthy adult in average physical shape wearing a winter hat, gloves, coat and boots only has maybe 30 minutes of exposure to the elements before they start to lose their ability to keep moving. It's very easy to become disoriented or lost, and your capacity to make clear, rational decisions degrades quickly."

But as recently reported in the aftermath of the historic blizzard in Buffalo, New York - where a 22-year-old nursing home assistant, stuck in her car for the night, died of carbon monoxide poisoning after her exhaust tailpipe became obstructed with snow - choosing to stay in the vehicle can also carry unique risks of its own.

All hands on deck

For sheriff's officials, by early afternoon, a crisis was brewing.

"It was all hands on deck," said Field Services Lt. Rich Fischer. "With all the rescue calls, the crashes, and our daily responsibilities in and around Rock Springs and Green River, our patrol division was stretched very thin with little room left to negotiate further staffing changes."

Through the onslaught, with deputies spread across the county, and the sheriff himself with members of his executive staff now helping pick up the slack by responding to calls for service around town, a few common threads began to emerge.

They learned from phone calls and field reports the stuck motorists were either brand-new to the area or from out of state. Each was mistakenly misled to the same remote patchwork of untrodden tertiary and quaternary roads, thanks to their in-car GPS navigation systems - all of them, marooned by modern technology.

What began as a public safety problem soon deformed into an information emergency, said Public Affairs Director Deputy Jason Mower.

"The challenge and our focus really turned to how best to get the word out to travelers to ignore their GPS and avoid alternate routes. And there was just no viable medium to effectively reach our target audience with that message."

Mower knew a majority of those passing through on the interstate were not listening to local radio or reading local newspapers.

"Most people these days are listening to satellite radio or watching satellite TV. If not, they're streaming it over the internet," he said. "Very few people, particularly if they don't even live here, are following our social media, listening to local radio or watching public television on our local cable network."

For Mower and his team, it was time to phone a friend, to call in favors, to think outside the box.

On the frontlines

On their second trip from civilization to the desolate, ice-kissed desert, rescuers braved freezing temperatures, howling winds and horizontal snow. Luckily, they had the road to themselves. While normally a bustling artery for tourism and interstate commerce, I-80 was lifeless.

Hours passed since the young family in the Ford Explorer phoned authorities for help. Their only solace: Each other, a warm car, continued communication with dispatch via a special text messaging system assuring them help was on the way, and a family Bible.

Further into the abyss remained stationed a lone county blade operator who had unexpectedly spent the day without fanfare digging out the misguided and misfortunate. In a phone call with Mower and Sheriff John Grossnickle, County Public Works Director Gene Legerski pledged to keep his man in the area as for long as possible.

Grossnickle said, "Public safety and our public roadways often intersect. We pride ourselves on our strong and long-standing working relationship with Gene and his staff. I have no doubt the day would have proved much more arduous without their support."

Help from WYDOT

Mower issued a transit alert on the Sheriff's Office social media.

Thanks to Wyoming Department of Transportation District 3 Senior Public Relations Specialist Stephanie Harsha, WYDOT issued a 511 text message alert to their subscribers, a pop-up alert on their online mapping system and a customized message on their electronic bulletin boards overhanging the interstate throughout Sweetwater County.

"I was happy to help," Harsha said. "Sweetwater County Sheriff's Office is a key partner of the Wyoming Department of Transportation in promoting highway safety. It's critical we continue to coordinate with communities throughout the state so we can provide the most accurate and up-to-date localized travel information possible for all transportation routes across Wyoming."

Mower also learned WYDOT had the ability to link local road closures to their official mapping system, and that they were finalizing agreements to feed their mapping data into many of the popular GPS navigation systems such as Google Maps, TomTom and SiriusXM.

"The navigation companies have been very responsive," said WYDOT Geographic Information System and Intelligent Transportation Program Manager Vince Garcia.

"Closing the roads puts a heavy burden on our local communities," he said. "We understand that, and I think the navigation companies understand it. That's why it's important we continue to work together with all of Wyoming's counties to identify and address these issues, and to pass that data along to navigation providers as

appropriate."

The Sheriff's Office would spend the coming days working alongside Legerski and County GIS Technician Megann Toomer to provide Garcia, WYDOT Chief Technology Officer Nathan Smolinski and the WYDOT GIS Group with a localized mapping file to incorporate into their system.

For his part, Legerski credited Toomer for putting all of the mapping data together for WYDOT, and thanked his road and bridge staff who, he said, remain dedicated to "digging the county out" when the need arises.

"We truly have a strong and diverse group of very talented people here in Sweetwater County. It's fun to work together to solve real-world problems. This project is a credit to everyone involved, and we hope it saves lives," Legerski said.

"It's reassuring," said Grossnickle. "Anytime a state or interstate highway is closed in Sweetwater County due to adverse weather, our corresponding county roads will now also show as closed on a map."

The home stretch...almost

The Sheriff's Office would rescue nine people that day, second only to their all-time record of 12 from White Mountain during another deadly winter storm on Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, shortly after acquiring the Hägglunds to replace a sluggish and antiquated Thiokol snowcat.

It was late afternoon Dec. 13, 2022 before the rescue team finally left the pavement north of the interstate toward the stranded family from Wisconsin.

Any remnants of the gravel road had since disappeared in the snow. The crew was forced to navigate by, of all things, GPS. At least in this case they were armed with exact coordinates and had no need to rely on Siri or Alexa for directions.

Some six miles into the trip, rescuers came across a black Mercedes SUV from Washington state whose lone occupant told authorities he had a tow truck coming. They later learned the tow truck also got stuck and required yet another tow truck to tow the tow truck before all were eventually transported to safety.

About eight miles in on the tracked rescue vehicle, at around 4:45 p.m., they encountered a hotshot trucker and his wife, from Texas, who were hauling a gooseneck trailer loaded with pipe. The couple spoke with dispatch earlier, at about 3 p.m., after they too found themselves betrayed by their navigation system and buried in the snow.

After search and rescue loaded the pair's luggage into the Hägglunds, the group of four - two crew members and now the Texas couple - continued northward in pursuit of the young family from Wisconsin.

The frozen desert was soon consumed by darkness. The only light visible for miles was from the headlights on the rescue vehicle.

The next stop was unexpected.

Several miles more, rescuers happened upon a forest-green Volvo sedan with California plates that had met the same fate as the others. This time, a 30-something-man from Illinois who spoke only broken English waved them down. He was low on fuel, cell phone battery nearly dead, and without cell service, unable to call for help.

With their newest passenger, the crew of five set out on the final stretch in search of the white Ford Explorer.

As the young mother from Wisconsin would later describe to authorities, from the pitch-black, a dim glow suddenly appeared out of nowhere along the horizon. It was just after 6 p.m. The woman, her husband and their toddler son patiently waited as the lights slowly grew bigger, and brighter. Overwhelmed with relief, it soon became apparent to the young couple their prayers had been answered. In the unlikely form of a tracked

sheriff's rescue vehicle, two deputies and a few new friends from Texas and Illinois, help had finally arrived!

By the time they found them, Search and Rescue Operator and Detention Center Deputy Dwaine Shafe recalled the family's Ford Explorer, entrenched in a 2- to 3-foot ditch, a ditch now invisible to the naked eye as the vehicle was cemented, mid-door, with drifting snow level with the roadway.

By day's end, the back of the Hägglunds was filled along one side with passengers. Opposite the human cargo, everyone's luggage was stacked atop the seats.

In the front seat next to the search and rescue driver, snuggly secured in his car seat, the 2-year-old boy from Wisconsin made fast-friends with one of the crew members, Search and Rescue Operator and Detention Center Lt. Mandi Hawkins.

"The kiddo' was a big fan," Hawkins said. "We just talked about where they were from, why they were in Wyoming and how they ended up on that road."

It would be well after midnight, and one more rescue mission by the relief crew, before all were returned to town.

But before leaving behind the snow-buried Explorer, the boy's mother would suddenly demand the crew stop the Hägglunds to retrieve a personal belonging. Shafe hastily returned with one last treasured heirloom, near-forgotten – the family Bible.

 

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