Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a long list of overdue maintenance projects. Now it's turning to a private partner to help raise money to upgrade the park's outdated radio system. That system lets rangers communicate during routine patrols as well as emergencies, like the wildfires that killed 14 people in east Tennessee a year ago.
The National Parks Service has a nationwide backlog of more than $11 billion in maintenance projects, as budgets haven't kept pace with needs. At Great Smoky Mountains, the most-visited national park, the list totals $211 million.
After the 2016 wildfires, officials listed an upgraded communications system as the park's top priority, says park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.
“The lifeline for our emergency responders is their radios. And when you're faced with an emergency that includes the agencies working along your boundary because you have a shared disaster, like the one that we faced with the November fires, that need becomes even more critical,” she said.
The project will cost about $2.5 million for new handheld radios, repeater stations on nine towers, and a modern computer-aided dispatch system. It also would expand radio coverage in the 500,000 acre park and allow direct radio links between rangers and nearby public safety agencies.
Key components of the current system date from 2003, and are no longer supported by the manufacturer, Soehn says.
The government will fund $1 million of the total. To pay for the rest, the park service has turned to the private nonprofit Friends of the Smokies.
That group contributes about $1.5 million a year for repairs and maintenance, science projects and education programs. The radio project would be on top of that in 2018, says Anna Zanetti, North Carolina director of Friends of the Smokies.
“This is something we need to fund because it is crucial to the park and to the visitor experience, to the safety of the park, to the safety of the gateway communities - you name it. Having a new emergency radio system is the backbone for our park,” Zanetti said.
Friends of the Smokies is using their 25th anniversary in 2018 as a way to raise the extra money. Officials hope to begin the upgrades by the end of next year.