CONWAY — If someone comes to your rescue, be nice to them, they’ve come to help you. It seems like common sense, but in the summer of 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, courtesy seems to have gone out the window according to local fire and rescue personnel.
Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon said he has never seen his crews treated so poorly by people they are trying to help.
Conway Fire Department had a record 164 calls for assistance in July, he said, smashing the previous record of 152 in July of 2011, when 30 of those calls were related to Tropical Storm Irene.
“We’ve never been busier,” said Solomon, 49, who has been the chief in Conway since 2007. “We’re just getting clobbered, and it’s all tourists. It’s the same with Fish and Game, we’re getting multiple requests for carryout at the same time.”
He added: “It’s primarily people up from south of the (New Hampshire) border. With limited things open, they’re all heading to the mountains and rivers. Some aren’t in shape to be hiking the trails they’re on.”
Solomon said last week his department had responded to a carry-out request on the Boulder Loop Trail on Passaconway Road in Albany with Sgt. Alex Lopashanski of state Fish and Game, when there was another request for help on Mount Major in Alton Bay.
“If the Saco Ranger Station hadn’t made staff available, we wouldn’t have had enough people,” Solomon said.
Solomon said summer visitors are relying on their cellphones when they are out on the trails.
“They’re using them as their navigation systems and if anything comes up, they’re calling for help right away,” he said.
On Aug. 5, Fish and Game conservation officers responded to the Jewell Trail on Mount Washington to assist a family of six who had become fatigued and stranded due to the onset of darkness. According to Conservation Officer Matthew Holmes, this represented the third search-and-rescue call received by Fish and Game for the Mount Washington area that evening. He said the other two calls were handled over the phone and with the assistance of volunteers.
“Hikers are reminded that conditions in the mountains change rapidly and that search-and-rescue resources are limited due to public health concerns,” said Holmes.
Solomon said the department has responded to more broken legs than ever before at Lower Falls on the Kancamagus Highway.
“There are 400 people there every day,” he said. “Anywhere where there is a river or swimming hole, people are pulling off there, and it’s not one or two days, it’s 10-15. Crazy is definitely the word for it.”
Town Manager Tom Holmes told selectmen Tuesday that the town is being “overrun” with day-trippers clogging popular recreational outdoor spots, many of whom are acting badly.
“We are the Alamo at this point, we are just being overrun,” he said.
“Virtually every popular spot in town is having overcrowding issues, too much trash, too much porta-potty use,” said Holmes. “I’ve already authorized the addition of two more porta-potties at Schouler Park ... We are pumping them twice a week. They are still overflowing.”
“Tom is 100 percent right,” Solomon said, “and the people are rude. They’re rude to us and we’re coming to help them. This summer, more than I’ve ever seen, no one will pull over when we’re to trying to get to a call (with lights and sirens going).
“And the expectations of us are just unrealistic,” he added. “The other day we responded to help a woman, and she got upset because we wouldn’t take her three children and dog in the ambulance with her.”
Solomon says it’s frustrating, but the department won’t decline to help people.
“We can’t refuse service,” he said. “For the most part, we have to bite our tongues and take it. People get upset when it takes us 20 minutes to get to a call when they’re 15 miles away on a river or they take offense when we tell them it will take 20 minutes to get to (Memorial Hospital), and when we get there they get mad because they say the hospital is too small.”
And, all of this is going on amid a pandemic, which requires Solomon and other departments to don personal protective equipment for every call.
“This summer has been ridiculous,” he said. “The stress is taking a toll on first responders for sure. I’ve been urging our guys to take a vacation, just to get a break away from this for a few days. I took two weeks off in July. It was the first time I’d taken two weeks off since I was 13.”
Jackson resident Chris Carlson has noticed a difference in people this summer.
“I don’t know if it’s the same all over the world? But the type of person that’s coming to the valley is changing,” he posted on Facebook. “The reasoning and mindset are totally different than years past. I don’t know if they come and really appreciate the beauty? Or to just have an excuse to party and do whatever they want with little or no respect for other people or the environment.”
Solomon appreciates the MWV Chamber of Commerce urging people to be polite and pick up after themselves on the trails.
“I applaud them, but sadly I’ve seen no difference,” he said.
Solomon shared a decade ago when he was the town’s emergency management coordinator, he and then Town Manager Earl Sires were pandemic planning.
“We joked 10 years ago that we should take out all of the bridges and put dump trucks across the roads and not let anyone in,” he said. “I think we were onto something.”
He added: “Our locals, the businesses and churches have all done a great job during this (pandemic). I get it, we’re all frustrated. I don’t like having to wear a mask all of the time, but I have to. There’s definitely a different group of people here with different attitudes than any other summer.”
Solomon sees the pandemic having an impact on first responders.
“If and when we come out of the pandemic, I think you’re going to see a massive brain drain on the first responders,” he said. “We need to prepare for that.”