An emergency phone outside the gates of the Rose Valley Work Camp could be a lifesaver for hunters, campers and others who explore that remote area of Los Padres National Forest, officials said.
When the phone is installed this spring, it will be the only public phone for 45 miles north of Ojai between Wheeler Gorge Campground and Ventucopa, a tiny community outside the forest in Santa Barbara County.
“A phone up there is long overdue. It’s probably going to wind up saving a couple lives,” said Steve Frank, operations director of Ojai Ambulance Co.
Ojai paramedics respond to four or five emergencies in the Rose Valley area every month, Frank said. The ambulance company is based about 15 miles away in downtown Ojai, a 40-minute drive from Rose Valley along winding California 33.
Emergencies range from vehicle accidents to allergic reactions resulting from bee stings, Frank said. Hunting or hiking accidents are common. Occasionally a climber will get stranded or fall off the 65-foot-high Rose Valley Falls.
“A lot of people are being loaded into private vehicles without much care and that can present significant problems if they have spinal injury,” he said.
U. S. Forest Service officials estimate that 60,000 campers use the Rose Valley and Lion campgrounds each year. But the lack of phone lines into the area has prohibited the installation of public phones.
Surrounding mountains cause too much interference for solar-powered emergency call boxes to be installed along California 33 north of Ojai, said Chris Stephens of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.
The emergency phone by the gate is part of Pacific Bell’s agreement with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department to set up a complete microwave communications system for the Rose Valley Work Camp.
Officials had hoped that the new system would be operating before winter began. But a final permit is still pending from the Federal Communications Commission, said Ann Bates of Pacific Bell.
“We’re hoping to complete the installation process by the end of April,” Bates said. “We are limited to providing phone service only to governmental agencies in the area.”
The work camp’s proximity to the campgrounds, five miles east of California 33, is one reason the Sheriff’s Department asked Pacific Bell to install a phone for public use outside the camp gates, said Lt. Bruce McDowell of the sheriff’s custody division.
The non-coin-operated phone will be primarily for the visiting families of inmates but it will allow 911 and collect calls, he said.
“While it doesn’t open the whole area to phone service, if someone were up there camping and they needed to make an important phone call, that’s one less trip down that dangerous highway,” McDowell said.
The Sheriff’s Department rehabilitated the old Naval Construction Battalion base last year to house up to 90 minimum-security inmates and a dozen employees. The inmates assist the Forest Service and work on other community service projects.
The camp’s only contact with the outside world has been through scratchy radio communications and a cellular phone with frequent service interruptions.
“It’s our cellular phone that’s unreliable. It works only every second Tuesday when the sun spots are in the right position,” McDowell said. “We’ve gone two or three days without any phone communication.”