When the Vail Pass on the I-70 closes, stranding drivers on their way to Denver at over 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Dan Smith gets a call and goes to work.
With Fire Department volunteers, he creates a makeshift 150-bed emergency shelter in 30 minutes, with cots spread across the town council chamber, in the hallway to the police department and in the basement of the nearby chapel.
“When it’s 20-below and the snow is coming down, we don’t want people sitting in a running car on the road,” Smith said. “Everyone thinks the pass will open as soon as they get out of the car, so when I walk the line and I can’t get them to move, I try having police officers and fire personnel encourage them to the shelter. Then, I pull the grandma card.”
Smith, retired from Exxon and a former Vail Mountain Rescue mission coordinator, has served as the volunteer advisory council chairman of the Vail Valley Service Center for 14 years. In the roughly 25 emergency shelter situations he’s managed, he said he’s learned that grandmas are the only ones who can sway a family from their car to safety—and he has a list of them on standby to help The Salvation Army.
“We’re the go-to people, so when there is a problem, we get a call, and they don’t hit bureaucracy, they get a human,” Smith said. “We’re fairly practical and pragmatic. We do things that don’t fit in anybody else’s wheelhouse. We get the problem solved.”