SALT LAKE CITY — Confusion over dispatch jurisdiction resulted in a minutes-long delay for a person who called 911 Wednesday needing emergency medical attention.
From the time the 911 call was answered until the time the first emergency unit was dispatched, five minutes had elapsed. Most calls take an average of less than two minutes, according to dispatchers.
The first emergency unit arrived at the house 13 minutes after the 911 call was placed.
The problem was that Salt Lake City didn't realize the incident was in their dispatch area.
"The caller needed a medical response and it should have been dispatched from Salt Lake City on behalf of Sandy, it should have been a Sandy response unit," said Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond. "That's something that should have been recognized by our dispatcher but wasn't."
Because of Wednesday's incident, a new protocol was established Thursday to avoid future delays for emergency fire service.
Since Oct. 27, all emergency calls for Sandy police and fire units have been dispatched out of Salt Lake City. Prior to that, Sandy was part of the Valley Emergency Communications Center, which dispatches for most of the police and fire agencies in the south end of Salt Lake County, including West Valley City, Draper, South Jordan and West Jordan.
While emergency officials admit there have been minor issues as both Sandy and Salt Lake City get used to their new arrangement, they say Wednesday's incident was rare.
"I don't think we've had anything of this magnitude. There have been growing pains as far as there have been some added time," said VECC spokeswoman Geana Randall.
Wednesday's incident happened in a pocket of unincorporated Salt Lake County that is surrounded by Sandy. At 8:12 a.m., a resident called 911 needing an ambulance, said Randall. The call was received by VECC.
The VECC dispatcher recognized the call was within the Sandy Fire Department's boundaries and needed to be transferred to Salt Lake City's dispatch center. The Salt Lake City dispatcher, however, did not make the connection.
"There was apparently some issue on their end, some indication to the call taker on their end that they didn't understand it was a Sandy call, so they declined to go on it," Randall said.
Raymond said a dispute between dispatchers over jurisdiction lasted less than a minute before the VECC dispatcher decided to just get a Unified Fire Authority unit rolling. VECC, however, noted it still took some time for them to manually enter the required information needed at that point to send a unit.
The first emergency unit arrived at the residence where the 911 call was made at 8:25 a.m. — 13 minutes after the initial 911 call was placed. The patient was transported to the hospital. There was no word Thursday on that person's condition.
Also unknown Thursday was whether there was a unit from the Sandy Fire Department that was closer and available at that time that could have responded quicker.
Raymond admitted that there have been "minor misunderstandings" about jurisdictional issues since Sandy switched to Salt Lake City's dispatch center, but said they are expected wrinkles that come with any new system. He said the issue with the dispatcher wrongly rejecting the call was being handled internally.
Within Sandy, there are "islands" or pockets of unincorporated Salt Lake County. Unified police handles those areas for police calls. Unified Fire Authority and the Sandy Fire Department, however, have an agreement that the closest unit will respond to a 911 call, regardless of jurisdiction.
Because of Wednesday's incident, Unified Fire Chief Michael Jensen said a new protocol was drawn up for VECC and Salt Lake City for fire and paramedic calls. He said a unit will be dispatched within 60 seconds of receiving a 911 call, regardless of whether it's in their jurisdiction.
"We want the closest units to go as quickly as we can," he said. "If there's any confusion that lasts up to 60 seconds, the dispatcher who receives the call will send units. We don't want to delay any patient care or any response."
Contrary to what some might think, Jensen said the fire chiefs in the valley all agree that the nearest unit needs to be dispatched to an emergency, regardless of boundaries.
"From a policy perspective, we're all on the same page. We want the fastest response we can get," he said.
Sandy Police Sgt. Jon Arnold, who helped his department transition to the switch to Salt Lake dispatch, said one of the problems initially was that the cellphone towers in the city weren't adjusted by the phone carriers to transfer 911 calls to Salt Lake City's dispatch center instead of VECC.
"I know there were some initial issues and I know they have been working through them," he said. "Somewhere along the line there, those (towers) weren't switched over on Oct. 27. So that has been worked on. There were calls that were initially going to VECC that should have gone to Salt Lake. There is supposed to be some resolution of most of that by now."
On the police side, Arnold said there have been some delays by 911 calls going to the wrong dispatch center, but he said those delays should only be a few seconds at most.
Arnold said he only knows of one recent police incident where there was confusion over whether the call was in Sandy or Unified's jurisdiction. It was for a trespassing incident. Although he didn't know exactly how long the response was, he admitted it was a "little longer" than normal.
"At this point we're happy with how things have gone. We're pleased with our association with Salt Lake dispatch," he said.
In September, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams announced that the County Council had approved his request for $1.3 million to make a single valleywide dispatch system. But it's up to the dispatch centers to decide who will switch to the other's system.
Jensen said the only way to completely assure the problem will be solved is for all agencies in the valley to get on the same computer system rather than fixing cellphone towers.Comment on this story
"If we were all on the same system, it wouldn't matter what dispatch center you got sent to," he said. "If we were all on the same page, if we were all on the same platform, that would solve this problem.
"We were hoping to avoid these problems, it appears we haven't been able to avoid them. That's unfortunate," Jensen said. "We shouldn't have these episodes going into the future."