$725,943 grant to help provide emergency service on Bentonville trails

Mountain bikers explore trails Thursday, March 10 2022 at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentonville. A $725,943 grant from the Walton Family Foundation will be used for development and staffing of a trail response team to assist with emergencies on the city trail system. The grant will fund six Fire Department personnel. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Mountain bikers explore trails Thursday, March 10 2022 at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentonville. A $725,943 grant from the Walton Family Foundation will be used for development and staffing of a trail response team to assist with emergencies on the city trail system. The grant will fund six Fire Department personnel. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

BENTONVILLE -- A grant will provide manpower to deal with emergencies on Bentonville city trails.

The City Council on Tuesday accepted a $725,943 grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

The grant will pay for six Fire Department employees. The foundation will pay 75% of the wages for two years and 25% for the third year. The city will fully pay the personnel after the third year, according to council documents.

Caryl Stern, foundation executive director, said in a letter to Mayor Stephanie Orman the grant will be used for development and staffing of a trail response team to assist with emergencies on the city trail system.

The grant came at the recommendation of Tom and Steuart Walton, according to the letter.

Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Boydston wrote the grant application after the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers suggested a grant might help the department reach its staffing goals faster and then be able to start a trail response team.

The Fire Department is adding more staff members over the next few years with nine members coming on board this year and six more in 2023 and 2024. The department has 99 firefighters who now work three shifts. Adding the nine who were budgeted this year and the six who will be paid through the grant will get the department to a level of staffing to provide designated help on the trails, Boydston said.

The grant will help accelerate staffing and make a project that has been on the table for two years possible, Boydston told the council.

"Bentonville's first responders do an amazing job to keep our residents safe, but we've seen growth over the past few years and this grant will allow the Fire Department to accelerate its staffing plan so they can continue to serve the community," Tom Walton said.

There also is a city mountain bike patrol made up of volunteers who are trained in first aid that helps on the trails, Boydston said.

The Fire Department recognizes the increased demand in the area for outdoor recreation and tourism, Chief Brent Boydston said in an inter-office memorandum to Orman and the council.

"The increase in tourism has also increased the amount of calls for service on the trail systems, which at times stretches our current staffing levels," he said. "In response to this, we recognize the need for preemptive services on the trails to increase the experience locals and tourists have while using our world class trail systems."

He noted with current staffing measures, the department would be unable to fulfill the need until 2025-2026.

"Assistance with staffing cost would allow us to move this timeline up and fulfill the need of the community sooner with a state of the art trail response system," he said.

The Fire Department responded to 198 incidents on city trails last year, up from 150 in 2020. Bentonville is estimated to see one incident per day on its trails by 2025, Kevin Boydston said.

"The calls really exploded in 2020 and they are not slowing down," he said.

Still, the Fire Department sees an estimated 25% of the injuries that happen on the trails, he said.

"Someone may have a bad crash and just tough it out. Then when they get home they can't breathe," Kevin Boydston said.

That's where preventive help from Fire Department personnel on trails could come in handy, he said.

Trail injuries run the gamut from an elderly walker on a paved trail who may need help after having a medical emergency, to someone who has suffered broken bones in a biking accident. Recently, a person suffered two broken arms in a biking mishap on a city trail, Boydston said.

The department has a one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with an emergency on the trails. That usually takes staff and equipment from two to three stations. With staff designated to work the trails, the process can be refined and response times can be improved, he said.

Trail staff will use bikes and all-terrain vehicles. The ATVs will be equipped to bring an injured person to a waiting ambulance if needed, Boydston said.

Boydston sees trail staff as being pro-active, providing education, guidance and preventive care.

Trail staff will work north of Central Avenue where most of the incidents occur, Boydston said. The six will spend about 35% to 40% of their time on the trails and the rest of their time in station, he said.

The city has 75 miles of mountain-bike trails and 50 miles of hard-surface trails, said David Wright, parks and recreation director.

Trails north of Central include the Slaughter Pen Bike Trail and the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve. Reaching someone with an injury on a mountain-biking trail is often the biggest challenge, Wright said.

Raney Singleton of Bentonville said a trail response team is needed. He expects injuries on the trails to rise in the spring and summer as more people get outside. Singleton said he has seen people injured on the mountain-biking trails and he, too, has some scars from biking -- a front tooth knocked out in one incident and 14 stitches needed after a mishap at Slaughter Pen.

Singleton agreed some sites on the trails would be hard for an ambulance to reach. That's where the response team could help.

"You have to be able to get there," he said. "You don't want to carry someone a mile with a bone sticking out of their leg."