‘Find a way’

In times of crisis, Boulder nonprofit Via works behind the scenes — for free

A Via driver helps a passenger onto a shuttle outside an assistance center set up for the 2013 floods. Courtesy: Via Mobility Services

Annie Montelione is driving with her head out of the window. The black air billowing outside means she can’t see through the windshield of her 16-passenger bus. The world is on fire around her; soot drifts from the sky like snow.

It is Dec. 30, 2021, and the Marshall Fire is eating up acres of land, homes and businesses in southeast Boulder County. Montelione is evacuating patients from Centennial Peaks Hospital in Louisville. She is not an EMT, or a cop. She’s not a firefighter. 

Montelione is a driver for Via Mobility Services, a Boulder-based nonprofit. Primarily, Via is a provider of paratransit services to people with mobility challenges. Drivers also take people to and from the homeless shelter every day. And Via runs general-purpose transportation services across the Front Range, including Boulder’s HOP, the Eldo Shuttle and Gold Hill Climb, Lyons Flyer and, in the summer, the popular Chautauqua shuttle.

But when floods, fires and bitter cold come to Boulder County, Via switches into disaster response mode. 

It started with the 2013 floods, when Via moved residents from Frasier Meadows retirement community to other facilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, drivers delivered food and meds and suspended fares for paratransit riders. They were on standby after the King Soopers shooting and turned their 63rd Street facility into a makeshift crisis center for families and law enforcement. Last December, when temperatures dipped to dangerous sub-zero degrees, Via’s drivers searched the streets for unhoused residents to take to an emergency warming center and overflow shelter. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Via’s decade of emergency aid is that they provide it for free.

Of the enormous role Via plays in the community, Lisa Bitzer, director of operations, says simply, “We stay plenty busy.” 

Ready to help

Via’s role in times of crisis is typically one of “second responders,” an informal term that encompasses organizations and individuals who support police, fire and emergency “first responders” who are working behind the front lines. Typically, that means taking people to evacuation centers, like during last year’s NCAR Fire. The Marshall Fire was the first time Via operated in active emergency zones.

“We literally had drivers driving down the middle of the street with houses burning on both sides, rescuing people,” Bitzer says. 

“There were tumbleweeds on fire flying at the vehicle,” Montelione recalls. 

At the hospital she evacuated, patients were standing in disarray outside as it filled with smoke, many without shoes. “It was pretty intense,” Montelione says.

Disaster response shifts are volunteer only; workers are still paid, but they’re not required to be there. About 35 of Via’s drivers and dispatchers responded to the call during the Marshall Fire, according to Bitzer, many having already completed a day’s work.

Montelione spent the day driving around Denver and Aurora. When Via asked her to help out in Boulder County, “I just was like, ‘Sure, I’ll help,’” she says. “I’m really close with my team. They said it was an important thing; I was like, ‘OK.’” 

That’s the general attitude at Via: Do what is necessary. 

“They very much view their role as a commitment and duty,” says Monika Weber, a coordinator with the Boulder Office of Disaster Management. “They really believe in serving the community in that way.”

In emergency situations, Via is moving not only people but sometimes their pets and — especially for unhoused folks — their belongings. They haven’t yet been asked to, but if the situation ever called for it, Bitzer says she would figure out how to move horses, too: “I’d find a way.”

‘Organized chaos’ 

Via’s relationship with ODM is an informal one. “There’s no requirement [that] Via must help,” Weber says.

That’s because, even as the “official” disaster response agency for the City of Boulder and unincorporated Boulder County, ODM can’t tell anyone what to do. Only governments can do that, and only to a certain extent: Authority over private nonprofits is limited.

“We can say, ‘We really need this help’ and we can ask for it,” Weber says, but it is ultimately up to individual agencies to determine if they have available resources. “We have responsibility for everything but authority over nothing.”

The woman with the responsibility at Via is Bitzer. She’s their Michael Jordan, their Beyoncé, the keeper of a vast amount of institutional and operational knowledge. 

Bitzer is the point of contact with ODM and Via’s employees. In emergencies, she knows where drivers need to go, and where they can’t if roads are closed by fire, flood or other disasters. She knows who to call and decides when and which resources to divert — all while running the day-to-day business in areas where emergencies aren’t happening. 

“There’s a million things happening all at once,” she says. “But it’s very controlled. And I know who’s going where and what they’re doing and what size vehicle” they have, so emergency responders know their capacity for evacuations and transport.

“It’s organized chaos.” 

During the Marshall and NCAR fires, her cellphone number was listed on ODM’s website (with her permission). And so Bitzer, in addition to everything else she was doing, answered phone calls from the general public.

“I was answering to anyone that called,” she wrote in response to an emailed follow-up question. “Many were families in other states worrying about their loved ones. Several calls were for us to go get people and move them to shelters, and then of course when the danger passed, we worked to get them back home.” 

‘Door through door’

The amount of information floating around in Bitzer’s head has only expanded in recent years as Via has grown. In 2020, they were operating in four counties. Today, they provide paratransit services in seven (Boulder, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, Larimer and Weld) and run RTD’s FlexRide reservable shuttle in eight (Broomfield being the additional county). During the Marshall Fire, they evacuated people to Colorado Springs. 

There’s one area Bitzer says is outpacing all others: “The need for service for our paratransit is the most we’ve ever seen.”

Via provides “door through door” services, meaning drivers “actually go into the home, help someone put their coat on, get them out to the vehicle, then get them into where they’re going,” Bitzer says. “If you’re going to a hospital and you’re up on the third floor, we’re going to take you up to the third floor.”

Demand is only likely to increase. By 2040, one in four Coloradans will be 60 or older, according to projections from the state demographer’s office. About 90% of Via’s riders are 60-plus, making the paratransit even more essential as the population ages.

“Think about the condition of people that are needing those trips,” says Via CEO Frank Bruno. “If you’re jumping on the HOP [bus], maybe you’re also able to take an Uber or Lyft. Or maybe you’re going to grab a scooter. But if you’re on paratransit service, you don’t have a lot of options.”

“It’s important for people to have their independence,” Bitzer adds, “whether it’s going to a medical appointment that’s necessary, or going to a senior center to get that midday meal that might be their best meal of the day or their only social outing.”

Who will pay for expanded paratransit is unclear. Via gets funding from multiple sources, and some riders (based on age and income) pay for the service in Boulder County. (Trips in the Denver metro are 100% subsidized by the Denver Regional Council of Governments.)

Even so, each trip creates an $8 deficit. Via covers the cost with revenue from grant funding (federal, state and private foundations), donations, fares and revenue from its general transportation contracts.

“If we were a private company, we might take that revenue and bring that to the shareholders or send it to a different country or different state,” Bruno says. “With Via, we put it into paratransit service.”

All three services — paratransit, general transportation and disaster response — are expected to grow as governments at all levels attempt to usher residents away from car travel, and the continued reliance on cars helps drive (in part) more climate disasters. 

Bitzer, typically, is already thinking 10 steps ahead to what else Via might be asked to do, like transporting migrants who arrive in Denver. She seems unfazed by having yet another potential item on her to-do list.

“We are here to serve in so many different ways; we pride ourselves on being able to do that,” she says. “I go home every day knowing that I have made a difference for people.”

This story was produced as part of our After the Fire series examining how Boulder County is preparing for the next disaster two years after the Marshall Fire. Read the other stories:

On foot As communities push for fewer cars, plans for pedestrian evacuations are slowly coming along by Kaylee Harter

‘Helping themselves’ For marginalized communities, mutual aid is the model for emergency preparedness by Cindy Torres

Rebuilding by the numbers Who’s home, who’s not — and why by Will Matuska

Photo gallery by local filmmaker and photographer Megan Sweeney


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