November 26, 2022
Governor Greg Gianforte
P.O. Box 200801
Helena, MT 59620-0801
Dear Governor Gianforte:
Health and safety are being touted by some in the campaign to plow the 9-mile section of Highway 212, “The Plug”. Everyone is entitled to and has a private opinion on the benefits of plowing, not plowing, or plowing responsibly, but “health and safety” in the manner it is being discussed, should not be a part of this debate and is what I would like to address.
My name is Kay Whittle and I am a 19-year resident and business owner in Cooke City. I am also an EMT and EMS Captain for Cooke City Silver Gate Emergency Services, SAR & hasty team member, and the Deputy Coroner for Park County, Montana. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am also a founding member of Protect our Plug “POP”, which is an organization in favor of plowing the plug responsibly. I am however writing to you to address the health and safety information you are receiving.
I am a part of a very effective team in Cooke City that answers the call for sick or injured individuals. We live in a very busy tourist area in both summer and winter and because of the activities and the sheer number of visitors, we receive a variety of trauma and medical calls on a regular basis. Much (if not all) of the information you are receiving and that I am seeing in printed news stories from the folks that are pro-plowing is false on its face and misleading. I feel it is important to point out that most of the individuals putting forth this information are not presently (and never have been) members of Cooke City Silver Gate Emergency Services or Search and Rescue in any capacity. My purpose in writing you is to outline our guidelines and protocols which will assist you in deciphering some of the rhetoric that is being carelessly thrown around.
The closest geographically located hospital to Cooke City is West Park Hospital in Cody, Wyoming, which is classified as a General Medical & Surgical Center. The drive time from Cooke City to Cody Wyoming is approximately a 1.5-hour drive for a person driving in their personal vehicle, familiar with the road, with no rain or snow, (during the summertime), in light traffic, and with no road construction. The next closest hospital is Livingston Regional Hospital, a level IIII hospital, which is a 2.5-hour drive from Cooke City for a person traveling in their vehicle with the same road conditions mentioned above. Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, a Level III Trauma Hospital is a 3-hour drive as is Billings Clinic Hospital, which is a Level II Trauma Hospital (one of only 2 in Montana).
With the above in mind, I will describe how we operate. As I am sure you are aware, each emergency differs so with the vast experience of our team, we adjust to quickly bring about the best outcome for our patient(s).
As stated above, Cody, Wyoming is the closest geographically located hospital to Cooke City, which has led some to tout that if the east end of Cooke City is plowed, it would immediately make a difference and improve the way EMS and SAR operate. This is a false presumption because Cody’s ambulance personnel are not staged in or near Cooke City. They are at best two plus hours away (this is true even during the summer) and without a doubt true in winter. Whenever we respond to any kind of emergency (trauma or medical) our most immediate goal is to get the patient to the next highest level of care as quickly as we can (which is true throughout the industry). If we call Cody, we immediately know that our patient is not going to receive a higher level of care for at least two hours, maybe more (which could truly be lifesaving). Our saving grace has always been Yellowstone National Park, which has the personnel and an ambulance closer than anyone else, all of the time. They are an integral part of our system and even if the ambulance does not happen to be 4 miles away at the NE Gate, they always arrive sooner than Cody is able to (I am citing cases we encounter during the summer months).
Due to the remote location of Cooke City (which is not unlike other remotely located communities in Montana and Wyoming), we have many more helicopter transports. We transport patients that may not (in other areas) require a helicopter, primarily because of the amount of time to drive them to a hospital that can adequately treat their illness or injury. Many of these very sick or injured patients need the care they can only get at a Level II (Billings Clinic Hospital) or a Level III (Bozeman deaconess) hospital, which is why they are often transferred from Livingston Regional Hospital or Westpark Hospital in Cody. Weather is a major factor when it comes to being able to transport a patient by helicopter. We are able to land a helicopter pretty much where ever we need to, but if it is deemed unsafe because of weather conditions, the Park Service is our transport. Many times, if a flight is needed and the helicopter is unable to land in or near Cooke City, the Park Service is able to transport the patient out of the weather to transfer them to a flight.
Often times we have patients who suffer injuries that are not immediately life-threatening and they are therefore able to choose to be transported by ambulance or by private vehicle. In these cases, even if the Plug is plowed, as a caregiver, I would recommend they drive through YNP toward Livingston because there is cell service (intermittent in the park) and places to stop for help if the condition of the patient worsens and they change their minds about an ambulance. Driving east toward Cody, Wyoming is a dead zone as far as cell service with no options for help if the condition of the patient worsens, so not a good choice if transporting an injured or sick individual.
There is no doubt that living in a remote area like Cooke City comes with its challenges. It can often be inconvenient but comes down to a choice we all make. During the summer months, we have many elderly residents that spend time in their family cabins, only to eventually have to make the difficult choice of moving closer to the health care they require. This will happen even when the Plug is eventually plowed because plowing The Plug will not change Cooke City’s geographic location.
Cooke City Silver Gate Emergency Services