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UTA is taking heat over fire

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Already under fire for an unauthorized assault-rifle purchase and for its handling of contraband seized on TRAX trains, the Utah Transit Authority is now taking heat from some Salt Lake City firefighters.

The fire department's concerns surround a July 5 incident involving a TRAX driver who ignored requests from transit officers and moved a light-rail train to within eight feet of a burning car.

Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Mike Tucker's engine was first on scene, assigned to put out the flaming car, located near the Courthouse TRAX station, 450 S. Main.

"At the car fire I had a TRAX triple-car setup sitting approximately eight feet to the west, loading passengers while I was putting out the fire," Tucker wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Deseret News and sent to the Salt Lake fire chief and various people within the department.

When Tucker asked to have the train moved, he was told the driver had defied an earlier warning not to come any closer, Tucker said in his e-mail.

"(The driver) ignored the directions and put both the TRAX car and citizens at risk during the fire," Tucker wrote.

Tucker said that TRAX officers have complained that they frequently encounter situations — such as fires near light-rail lines and TRAX passengers with health problems — in which trains need to be stopped. Officers, however, aren't given the authority to override train drivers.

"The TRAX police are not given the ability to stop the cars and deal with the medicals and fear that they would be fired if this is brought out in the open," Tucker's e-mail reads. "The drivers are told to never stop the cars and to not listen to the police on these issues. . . . We need to get an understanding with TRAX upper management so we can better serve and protect our citizens."

Salt Lake Fire Chief Chuck Querry forwarded Tucker's e-mail to UTA administrators.

"I'm waiting for them to get back with me and see what we can do," Querry said. "I don't know if it's a miscommunication or what. . . . We're not looking at it as a crisis."

UTA spokesman Kris McBride said train operators ultimately have to rely on train-control dispatchers, who are in contact with police and fire agencies, for instructions during emergencies.

During the car fire, McBride said, a TRAX supervisor was at the scene and together with train control told the train operator to proceed to Courthouse Station.

"It was felt that there wasn't a serious situation, and we proceeded into the block," McBride said. "The train was not in danger at any time."

McBride said transit officers are sometimes frustrated when their advice is not heeded, but train-control dispatch is better suited to make decisions about safety than the transit cops.

"If (the operator) hears from our train-control center to proceed, that's what our operator does," McBride said.

UTA, which contracts with the Wackenhut Corp. for its security force, has also faced scrutiny from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.

The ATF is examining transit officers' use of high-capacity handgun magazines and the unauthorized purchase of an assault rifle by a department lieutenant and captain. Both the assault rifle and high-capacity magazines are reserved for regular police agencies.

The munitions have been confiscated, and several Wackenhut workers were disciplined internally.

The sheriff's office has examined the transit agency's makeshift "evidence locker" at UTA's Lovendahl TRAX station in Midvale. Sheriff's officials wants UTA to establish a permanent evidence protocol, which could be contracting with an actual police agency to store contraband.

E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com