Train Ride Fundraiser Highlights 911 Foundation


Flathead 911 Foundation Works to Ensure that First Responders have the Equipment they Need to Save Lives.

flathead river trainTraveling east out of Whitefish along the route of the Great Northern Railway, train travelers view the rapids of the Middle Fork Flathead River and the rising peaks of Glacier Park.

Passengers peering out train windows take in these majestic places that can quickly become treacherous. If a raft flips or a hiker falls, those in trouble rely on first responders to come to their rescue.

The views seemed fitting for a group of passengers Monday riding on the BNSF executive train from Whitefish to East Glacier as part of a fundraiser for the Flathead 911 Foundation.

The group’s goal is to ensure that first responders have the equipment they need. The nonprofit, formed in 2006, supports public safety agencies by distributing money to local organizations for specific projects and equipment.

The foundation is turning its immediate focus on bringing Smart911 to the Flathead Valley.

During the train trip, Flathead Emergency Communications Center director Elizabeth Brooks spoke about how Smart911 allows people to be active about their own rescue.

“Most citizens don’t think about 911 until they need us,” Brooks said.

The service enhances emergency response by allowing people to create private safety profiles that instantly transmit information to dispatchers when an emergency call is placed. That profile can include a name, physical address, medical history or photos in case someone becomes lost. Dispatchers relay the information to first responders when necessary.

The cost for Smart911 for Flathead County would be about $85,000, including setup and a five-year contract. Current funding for the emergency center is not adequate to keep up with communications technology, forcing the center to look for outside resources, Brooks noted.

Turner Askew of Whitefish is actively involved in the foundation, alongside his wife, Nan, who serves on the foundation’s board. He said the foundation is working to find a way to fund the Smart911 program.

“This is a program that the 911 Foundation has been looking at and sees value in,” Askew said. “If there are projects that can’t be funded, then we want to help.”

Brooks gave examples of when the Smart911 profile becomes beneficial for first responders: A stroke victim who is unable to speak but can dial 911 or a young child who knows how to call 911 in an emergency but doesn’t know an address to relay to dispatchers.

“You can put in as much information as you would like and all information remains confidential,” she said. “The information remains with the caller and is available in other areas that have Smart911.”

This information profile becomes even more critical as more people move to using only cell phones. While landline phones are tied to a physical address, cellphones are not.

“The 911 system was designed for landline phones,” Brooks said. “In most areas about 70 percent of phone calls come from cellphones. During tourist season, those numbers can be even higher.”

Even after a call is disconnected, Smart911 would provide GPS information to dispatchers. Currently, GPS is only available while the caller remains on the line.

The foundation hosted about 20 passengers for the annual train trip that served as fundraiser and opportunity to update donors on the group’s work. Foundation board member Ed Burlingame explained some of the projects the group has worked on over the last few years.

“The foundation’s purpose is to assist public agencies with getting the job done,” Burlingame said. “Quite often that means funding projects that are important to public safety for law enforcement, fire, EMS or search and rescue.”

The foundation provided $8,000 for a thermal search camera for a Flathead County Sheriff’s Office rescue boat and $15,000 to Flathead County Search and Rescue for two snowmobiles.

Many smaller grants have allowed for the purchase of safety equipment. The group also provided funding for educational programs to teach students how to call 911.

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