Efforts to decrease response times continue
Oct 28, 2016 10:43AM ● Published by Chris Larson
By Chris Larson | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sandy, Utah - In 2013, a man in Granite choked to death eating a piece of pizza. The family called 911 but the responders were too late, taking nearly twice as long as normal to get to the home.
An investigation by the Sandy City Fire Department would later show that the man would have died even if the responders were to arrive in their maximum average of six minutes. But, this helped launch a continuing discussion on how to reduce response times to homes in the islands of unincorporated Salt Lake County.
“It really raised our sensitivity about response times and that same short stretch of road experienced a double homicide and an arson a year before,” former Granite Community Council Chair Mary Young said.
Young and other members of the Granite Community Council met with various leaders of several agencies, including the Sandy Fire Department, which now provides emergency fire and medical response to certain areas of the unincorporated county.
As an outgrowth of those meetings and input from Young, the Sandy Police Department put together a list of tips for citizens to help responders get to their homes promptly.
Young said she began a response time “crusade” after a fire gutted the home of David Evans at 9696 South Quail Ridge Road in June 2014.
Young said, confirmed by many media reports, that there were more than a dozen calls placed to report the fire. Sandy City Fire Department was the first to respond in 12 minutes and United Fire Authority arrived in 18 minutes.
In the chaotic deluge of info to at least two different dispatch centers — Sandy City uses Salt Lake City’s dispatch center while Salt Lake County uses the Valley Emergency Communications Center — misinformation was routed to Sandy City Fire, according to Young. The firefighter began to set up houses at the wrong property before a neighbor instructed them as to the actual location of the fire.
The Quail Ridge Road incident was a microcosm of the challenges that dispatch centers and responders in the Salt Lake Valley currently face. A significant factor in the incident were cell phones. While the cell phones allow unprecedented access to 911 response centers, cell calls get routed to the dispatch center for the municipality of the tower, not the caller. This can add precious minutes to response times as information is gathered and transferred to the appropriate dispatch center.
“When you pick up a landline home phone, it would ring to the right center and they would know exactly where they were in direct response to the location,” Sandy City Police Sergeant Dean Carriger said.
Carriger also said that dispatch centers are prepared for errant call routing with protocols for gathering, transferring and even dispatching depending on the call’s location to minimize time spent on getting responders moving to that location.
“We are all focused on the same thing: providing excellent customer service to our residents,” Sandy City Fire Chief Bruce Cline said of all involved in emergency response.
The list of pointers suggests that people call from land lines if possible and to have the caller be familiar with the area enough to describe the particulars of where the responders are needed. It also calls for patience with any transfer protocol between dispatch centers.
“Law enforcement is looked at in a lot of different ways,” Carriger said. “But you can summarize it another way: we are a customer service organization.”
Carriger said the city continues to change in both the size and density, as illustrated by the annexing of “The Triangle,” a section of about 90 homes between Wasatch Boulevard and State Roads 209 and 210 in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
These instant additions of homes and territory to Sandy do raise questions regarding whether responders are equipped to handle the sudden increase in demand for services to the areas of recent annexations.
Until recently, the police department has been understaffed by as many as 17 officers. The department has nearly restored its ranks to previous levels of employment, but struggles to find and retain new officers.
“Forty percent are at or below four years,” Police Chief Kevin Thacker said in a May 10 city council meeting. “We’ve hired 36 officers since 2012.”
The city recently overhauled the salary structure of the police department to make the department more desirable to new hires and lateral hires, or new hires from other police departments.
Changes in the composition of the city, moving from rural to suburban to more true urban, also change the expectations that residents have for the police and fire departments.
The rural ethic that Sandy historically espoused years ago called for a more independent and self-sufficient ethic where citizens would have to be a “little more prepared to take care of themselves” because of the simple fact that it would take responders longer to get to calls, Carriger said.
The change to a suburban and soon to a more urban feel typically means more responders in a smaller area to deal with the larger and more concentrated population, so people become accustomed to the high expectation of very rapid response.
But, Sandy City has sought to progress the image of being the place where urban and mountain scenes meet. This means that the city still has several properties that are secluded near the mountains.
“Some homes are back in nice wooded areas and on larger pieces of property, which is the appeal of the property and is also not illuminated,” Carriger said of homes on Sandy’s eastside and unincorporated islands. “Those can be a hindrance and slow response times because it is harder to find the address where the emergency is occurring.”
The list of tips from the police and Young can help mitigate any problems.
It says to have a house number clearly displayed on the ingress to the property if the home is set back 45 feet or more from the road and that it remains clear from obstruction from decorations, flags, foliage or snow. Numbers on mailboxes or on curbs are easily blocked, the list reads.
Residents are also able to provide information for dispatchers about the special nature of their home like a gate code, directions or doors to go to. It is possible to associate a home address with a cell phone so a caller’s home address is available regardless if the call is placed with a cell phone.
Young said one measure she is working on with a fellow Granite resident is having the local Boy Scout troops house numbers on curbs with reflective paint. However, she acknowledges how easy it is for these to be obstructed by snow or trash cans.
The list says house numbers should be Arabic numerals at least four inches tall, contrast with their background, clearly seen from approaching the home in any direction, clear of trees or shrubbery or decorations and near the front door or over the garage.
For homes that are set back more than 45 feet from the street, numbers need to be posted where approaching responders can easily see them. Mailboxes often face the same problems as reflective house numbers on a curb.
An additional wrinkle to the story is that Sandy left the Valley Emergency Communications Center, the dispatch center that services the better part of Salt Lake Valley towns, to have the Salt Lake City Dispatch Center handle 911 calls.
Cline said the move was a cost-savings move that gave access to a more technologically advanced system.
But, the Salt Lake City Dispatch Center uses a different computer-assisted dispatch center than VECC. VECC, the dispatch center for several agencies, uses technology from a company called Spillman Technology and Salt Lake City’s Dispatch center uses Versaterm Inc. Unified Police Department uses a separate call center on Versaterm technology.
The two systems are incapable of communicating directly or seeing other dispatch assets the other system accounts for. This, in part, has contributed to the confusion over dispatching responders to unincorporated county.
But Salt Lake County leadership put up $1.4 million and has received significant financial aid from the state to build a county-wide consolidated dispatch system with the company Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure.
“If someone were to call into Salt Lake City Dispatch and it is a Draper call it will be a seamless transfer,” Cline said.
The dispatch centers will continue to service their relevant cities, according to Cline. He also said the goal is to have the new system in place in about 18 months.
“The only difference you would see between responders is the patch on their shoulder,” Cline said. “They are all there to provide excellent customer service to whoever or wherever it is.”
The tips can be found in the PDF above.