Did dispatch delay contribute to death of BYU student?
'This can't happen again,' Lone Peak fire chief says
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.
"What stands out the most is kind of how nonchalant the call (dispatcher) was and leaving it up to us. We have a person who is trapped under the water that is going without oxygen, and this is a critical call," he said. "I'm not saying it wasn't taken seriously, but we should have been dispatched immediately. I mean, this is a critical call the way the caller called it in."
A Lone Peak police officer also volunteered to go to the scene and began heading to the area at 5:46 p.m. "Initially, I wasn't going to respond due to the fact that medical personnel typically has a head start on incidents up American Fork Canyon," officer C. Thurston later wrote in his report.
But because he was "so much closer" than other units, Thurston decided to respond to the scene. When the officer arrived at the avalanche area about 5:58, he was informed that Cox's friends and bystanders had pulled her out minutes before and were administering CPR. She had been found face down in about three feet of water and six feet of snow, according to a sheriff's report.
Some reports indicate she was pulled out about 5:45 p.m. after being buried for nearly 20 minutes.
A dispatch log shows the Lone Peak ambulance arrived on scene at 6:06 p.m., about 20 minutes after Cox was found and 26 minutes after the 911 call was placed. The first Utah County sheriff's deputy arrived shortly thereafter.
Ultimately, Cox — a 21-year-old BYU student from Colorado Springs, Colo. — was taken to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo where she was taken off life support the next day. Freeman doesn't know for sure if the 10-minute delay that occurred in getting his crew on the road would have made a difference as to Cox's fate. But she would have at least had 10 more minutes of pure oxygen administered to her, he said.
"We are in the business of saving lives. We spend millions of dollars to place stations, to place trucks, manpower, to give training, and if we're not called out to use that, it's all in vain," Freeman said.
"This cannot happen again."
Freeman said he does not blame the sheriff's office or any of the rescuers who responded to the incident. But he doesn't yet know where the problem lies or why his units weren't dispatched first.
"I haven't found out yet. That's the big question of the day. I really want to know that, also. When we had help so close, people that are trained, paramedics that can make a difference, why we weren't dispatched. That's the big question. That's what I want to know."
Utah Valley Dispatch Special Service District declined several requests for an interview. Instead, it offered a brief written statement that did not address whether the agency believes there was a problem with how the incident was handled.
"A review of the events are being conducted," the statement reads.
Freeman can't say if the dispatcher made an error or if Utah Valley Dispatch's protocol for how calls are handled is at fault. But he said there has to be a change to ensure the closest available units are sent.
"We have to work together in this system to make it work up this canyon, or what we're going to have is a situation like what happened (on Feb. 8)," he said.
"I can't say she (Cox) would be alive today, but her chances would be a lot better."
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