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Sandy police and fire calls to be dispatched out of Salt Lake City

Beginning this fall, Sandy police and fire calls will be dispatched 20 miles away in Salt Lake City. Some fear that could delay response times because nearby jurisdictions use a different computer system.
Beginning this fall, Sandy police and fire calls will be dispatched 20 miles away in Salt Lake City. Some fear that could delay response times because nearby jurisdictions use a different computer system.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SANDY — When a house is on fire, residents expect the closest available fire truck will respond, regardless of where that truck is from.

But what happens if the closest unit is invisible to emergency dispatchers?

It's a scenario that dispatchers, firefighters and law enforcers in Salt Lake County are trying to prevent from happening this fall.

"The best way to describe it is we're going to be, come October, we're going to be blind to Sandy. There's just a big blind spot to us, and vice versa," said Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen.

On Oct. 27, the city of Sandy is scheduled to leave the Valley Emergency Communications Center and join Salt Lake City's dispatch center. That means all police and fire calls for Sandy will be dispatched out of Salt Lake City.

VECC currently dispatches for most of the police and fire agencies in the south end of Salt Lake County, including all of the cities that surround Sandy: Midvale, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, South Jordan, West Jordan and others.

The problem is that Salt Lake City and VECC run on two separate computer systems. VECC operates using Spillman Technologies, while Salt Lake City uses Versaterm. Emergency dispatchers using Spillman can't see what the agencies using Versaterm are doing and vice versa.

Jensen said when there's a fire or big accident on a city's border, sometimes units from the other city are able to respond quickest.

"Part of the problem is Sandy won't be able to see what units we have available in Cottonwood Heights, and in Midvale, and in Draper to go help them. And we won't see what units are available in Sandy to help us in Cottonwood Heights, and Midvale and Draper," Jensen said. "We don't know if they're available because we are not physically on the same system.

"We want the closest unit. We don't care what color the fire engine is or the name on the side. We want the closet unit to respond to that incident. So if that incident is in Draper City and on the border there near Sandy, it would be natural that a Sandy unit is probably one that we send," he said.

The chief said all of the fire departments in the valley have been working well together to resolve the potential problem. There isn't an agency in the state, he said, that wants to have delayed response times.

"We play very well in the sandbox together," he said. "I'm not worried about Salt Lake not wanting to play and wanting this to work. They do. I'm not worried about Sandy not wanting this to work. They do."

Salt Lake City 911 Bureau director Scott Freitag believes everything will turn out just fine come October.

"I know there are people out there saying the sky is falling because Sandy is not going to be on the same system as VECC. But it's the way the system works now between Salt Lake City and VECC, so there's no difference," he said.

At worst, Freitag said, the system will work the way it already does in Salt Lake City, like when incidents are dispatched to border cities such as South Salt Lake.

"The problem that is being talked about has always existed," he said.

A big step in resolving the problem was taken just last week.

Freitag said Spillman and Versaterm have agreed to make a Computer Aided Dispatch system, or CAD-to-CAD interface between Salt Lake City and VECC. That means both dispatch offices will be able to see what the other is doing. A similar interface was made several years ago so the Unified Police Department's dispatchers could talk to VECC dispatchers.

"Salt Lake City will be adding that same interface between itself and UPD, and itself and Valley. And so the intent, before we go live with Sandy, is to have both of those systems in place and working. And I don't see why that won't happen," Freitag said.

If the CAD-to-CAD isn't up and running by October, Freitag conceded there could be some rare scenarios where responding fire crews would be delayed by about a minute because of the communication gap. But all sides seem confident that any potential bugs in the system should have already been worked out when the CAD-to-CAD was established between the Unified Police Department and VECC.

Sandy Police Sgt. Jon Arnold said the decision to move to Salt Lake City for his city's dispatching came after Chief Stephen Chapman took a tour of the new Public Safety Building being built in downtown Salt Lake, which is scheduled to be completed at the end of the summer.

Chapman is a former Salt Lake police officer and was the department's assistant chief under Ruben Ortega.

Arnold said switching from VECC to Salt Lake City will save Sandy about $200,000 a year. "There is not going to be a loss of service for anyone in Sandy, on the borders of Sandy, Draper, Cottonwood Heights, Midvale," he said.

"This isn't something that is new, it's something that's been in practice in the past for at least a decade. This isn't new ground we're breaking," Arnold said.

Salt Lake City dispatchers expect their call load will increase by 67,000 police calls and 6,000 fire department calls — or an estimated 22 percent increase — when Sandy joins the mix. The department plans to begin the process of hiring 10 more dispatchers in preparation in July.

The eventual goal is not only to have VECC, Salt Lake City and the Unified Police Department able to talk to each other seamlessly, but to have the Department of Public Safety and Weber County dispatchers all communicating with each other in the near future.


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