Traffic flow between state parks and Interstate 80, as well as improving state park rescue operations with digital technology, headlined a park safety discussion Monday at the Utica fire station.
Local, county and state police agencies, Illinois Department of Transportation officials, Illinois Department of Natural Resources personnel, state park officials and legislators met to coordinate procedures and potential obstacles to ensure public safety in the parks’ upcoming peak months.
"We are holding this meeting because our department has an interest to have contingency plans for how this fire department responds to rescues and other medical emergency calls at the parks," said Ed Rogers, Utica fire chief of staff. "We are here today because all of us want a safe season for our many visitors and our first responders.”
Utica Fire Chief Ben Brown said last year, his crews were called to Starved Rock State Park "three or four dozen" times for various reasons, with nearly a dozen of those calls involving rescues of injured hikers from canyons and remote trails.
Conservation Police Sgt. Phil Wire, whose IDNR district has nine officers for a six-county area, reviewed 2017 incidents at the state parks to illustrate challenges facing first responders.
One fatality occurred at Starved Rock last July after a 24-year-old man slipped and fell into Pontiac Canyon. From March through July, the park reported at least one canyon fall per month.
Among Starved Rock rescue calls last year in which fire departments, conservation police and medical helicopters were called:
• In March, an Orland Park man was injured after falling at French Canyon.
•áIn April, a Lake Zurich man fell more than 30 feet near Lover’s Leap.
• In May, a Portage, Ind., man fell more than 40 feet at Sac Canyon.
• In June, a Chicago man fell about 20 feet at La Salle Canyon. The hiker declined medical treatment.
• In July, a Bartlett woman fell at La Salle Canyon.
Improving trail safety, rescues
Park officials said they are working on new safety signage and digital QR-coded markers to promote trail safety and to help first responders quickly locate those who need help in most areas of the park's 2,600 acres.
Safety signage will feature hiking safety guidelines to educate park visitors as they travel trails.
Officials said hikers can use smartphone QR code scanners with the new markers to instantly report longitude and latitude in a similar manner to a GPS unit. Officials said the signs will provide park officials, Conservation Police and emergency responders the ability to find those who need emergency help more quickly and efficiently.
The QR system is expected to be in place this summer.
Brown praised the markers.
"This is huge for us," Brown said. "Once installed, using these markers are 'the golden ticket' for our emergency crews to pinpoint a victim's location for a quicker response time."
Visitor numbers on the rise
The park's attendance climbed to nearly 3 million in 2017.
"Starved Rock State Park is now 11th in the nation (including national parks) of attendance in a recreational area," said state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris. "Increased tourism from successful marketing resulting in those numbers have created unique problems and issues for first responders responsible for emergency and other calls to Starved Rock and Matthiessen parks."
Starved Rock reported an official count of 2,817,228 visitors. Matthiessen recorded 514,715 visitors.
With the increase in tourists, traffic congestion — and emergency responders’ ability to reach the parks — fell among the unique problems Rezin referenced.
Warren Norris, IDOT senior traffic signal technician, said new traffic lights installed at the intersection of U.S. 6 and Route 178 in the fall will assist in alleviating long backups from between the park and I-80.
"We have and will continue to monitor the signals, which are adjustable to change the duration timing to keep vehicles from backing up onto I-80," Norris said.
He said IDOT officials also can monitor the lights remotely online during heavy traffic weekends and holidays in real time to change the timing of the signals.
Rogers said he hopes the new signals will help Utica crews "get around" lines of vehicles, which sometimes hamper their exit from the fire station on Route 178.
"On occasion, just getting into the park was difficult for us," Roger said.
Brown questioned IDOT officials if ongoing construction on the new Utica bridge would create additional traffic "bottleneck" problems for the summer season. He was assured the state will work with bridge contractors to keep the traffic flow moving at a smooth pace through the village and into the park.
More talking points
Also discussed Monday were historical records, crowd control, agency communications and how to improve public awareness of the dangers of leaving marked trails at Starved Rock.
Before adjournment, Rezin and her legislative partner, State Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, called on the state to "make investments" to address the safety issues in Utica and the local parks.
"I see a really good team here to keep the roads and park visitors protected," Long said.