Did dispatch delay contribute to death of BYU student?

'This can't happen again,' Lone Peak fire chief says

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 10:05 p.m. MST

Ashleigh Cox, a 21-year-old BYU student from Colorado Springs, Colo., died Feb. 9, the day after she was caught in an avalanche in American Fork Canyon. Dispatch logs, reports and recordings indicate that the closest emergency responders werent dispatched to the scene. A fire chief says she would have had a better chance of survival if there had not been a 10-minute delay.

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AMERICAN FORK CANYON — BYU student Ashleigh Cox had just finished a day of snowshoeing with five friends on Feb. 8 near Tibble Fork Reservoir when a slab of snow broke free while they were walking past a steep part of the mountain.

Four people, including Cox, were caught in the avalanche. Three freed themselves, but it took time to locate Cox. She died at a hospital the next day.

But the Deseret News has learned through dispatch logs, recordings and reports that the closest emergency responders were never dispatched to the avalanche, causing a delay in the time it took emergency responders to reach Cox — time that possibly could have made a difference.

"This can't happen again. This is unacceptable. We're in the business of saving lives," said Lone Peak District Fire Chief Brad Freeman. "To be behind the 8-ball so far when we're trying to save a life really bothers me."

The avalanche happened at 5:28 p.m. that day, according to one of Cox's friends. When the friends couldn't find Cox, they began probing for her with ski poles.

While they searched, a man who had been sledding nearby was asked to drive down the canyon to an area where he could get cellphone service and call 911 for help to arrive.

"It's Tibble Creek Reservoir. There's an avalanche. We've lost someone there," the man told the dispatcher. "She said we lost a friend. We had an avalanche come down on her. We can't find her."

That call was answered by Utah Valley Dispatch Special Service District, which dispatches for police agencies throughout Utah County, at 5:40 p.m. — 12 minutes after the slide.

Through a public records request, the Deseret News learned that three deputies from the Utah County Sheriff's Office were dispatched at 5:43 p.m. to the scene in American Fork Canyon — one who was in Provo Canyon, one from Eagle Mountain and one from north Orem.

Then, starting at 5:44 p.m., dispatchers made multiple attempts over the next few minutes to reach the sheriff's on-call search and rescue team.

Meanwhile, paramedics and firefighters trained in avalanche rescue were stationed less than two minutes away from the base of American Fork Canyon. They were ready to go but weren't informed of the avalanche until later.

In fact, it wasn't until about 10 minutes after the Utah Valley Dispatch Special Services District received the first 911 call that a Lone Peak fire battalion chief found out what was happening. At 5:50 p.m., Lone Peak fire officials were paged and told to call Utah Valley dispatchers. The dispatchers informed them that there was a third party report of an avalanche and a possible person trapped but did not officially send them.

"Do you want us to head up that direction?" the firefighter asked the dispatcher, according to a recording obtained by the Deseret News through a public records request.

"That's up to you," the dispatcher replied. "We're just giving you a heads-up at this time 'cause we don't have any, you know, confirmation or anything yet. We've got deputies en route."

The fire battalion chief decided to get some of his crew on the road and head up the canyon.

"We were never dispatched. We had to self-dispatch on this call," Freeman said.

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