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For more than two years, Salt Lake County has fought for a centralized, valley-wide 911 emergency phone operation to take advantage of a new computerized system - one that would handle all the 911 calls for everybody and save everybody money.

That ideal has not been reached, but slowly, reluctantly, most local communities have agreed to join hands in two answering centers. One would serve Salt Lake City, the other would serve Salt Lake County and a half-dozen small cities.The system is scheduled to begin operation in January. Yet it must be an embarrassment for county commissioners, after pushing hard to get everybody else involved, to have its own Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office refuse to participate.

Sheriff Pete Hayward wants his office to handle its own 911 emergency calls with its own dispatchers. "We handle calls differently than other jurisdictions," one official of the sheriff's office said this week.

That seems like a weak reason for staying out of a joint system. Most police and fire agencies in various communities probably handle calls in different ways. The refusal has the earmarks of a turf battle more than anything else - a reluctance to give up any control.

The enhanced service would flash a message on a computer screen with each 911 call, giving the operator the address and phone number of each caller, even if the person on the phone is unable to say a word.

Any 911 calls from unincorporated areas would still go to the 911 center where operators would have to ring calls down to the sheriff's dispatchers. This makes using one's own dispatchers even less sensible, since the original call would be in the hands of the 911 operators already.

The refusal of the sheriff's office to participate in the 911 center involves more than a question of turf or method - it may also cost extra money. The sheriff's refusal to be part of the joint 911 answering center means the county may have to pay an additional $80,000 in start-up money this year so Hayward can use his own dispatchers. The new 911 system is financed through a 38-cent surcharge on all local phone bills.

The Salt Lake County Commission is planning to meet to look at the issue. Unless commissioners can find more compelling reasons for the sheriff to stay outside the 911 center system, the sheriff's office should be required to join.