Our emphasis is always on sending all the help that is needed. If they're not needed, they can turn away when they're on scene. —Deborah Mecham
AMERICAN FORK CANYON — An avalanche in American Fork Canyon that killed a BYU student and controversy about the delayed response of medical personnel has resulted in changes being implemented for Utah County dispatchers.
Only Utah County sheriff's deputies were officially dispatched in February to the tragic incident, even though the current policy states that both medical and law enforcement need to be sent simultaneously to any search and rescue call involving a possible injury, trapped or missing person. But only law enforcement gets an automatic computer-generated call.
That policy has now been changed.
On Feb. 8, Ashleigh Cox, 21, was buried in an avalanche while snowshoeing near Tibble Fork Reservoir. As friends desperately tried to find her and dig her out, they asked a bystander to rush down the canyon to an area where there was cellphone reception and call 911. Cox died at the hospital the next day.
The Deseret News and KSL learned through dispatch logs, recordings and reports that the closest emergency responders were never sent to the avalanche scene. Medical crews eventually decided to "self-dispatch" about 10 minutes after deputies were first dispatched.
Three sheriff's deputies were sent to American Fork Canyon — one who was in Provo Canyon, one in Eagle Mountain and one in north Orem.
More than six minutes after the initial call-out for search and rescue crews was made, dispatchers contacted the nearby Lone Peak Fire District to notify them of what was happening, but did not officially dispatch them to the avalanche. After talking on the phone for about a minute, the battalion chief opted on his own to head to the scene, nearly eight minutes after the first deputy was dispatched, according to a report from the Utah Valley Dispatch Special Service District.
"The policy does state that both law (enforcement) and medical should be sent. So in this case, the dispatcher would have been requested to manually create a call and that did not happen at the same time the initial call was created," said Deborah Mecham, executive director of the service district.
Even though the policy is for medical to be dispatched at the same time, until now, the policy called for the computer-aided dispatch system to automatically dispatch law enforcement for search and rescue calls. But sending medical had to be done by a dispatcher manually. Mecham said it's a policy the full operations board, which includes Utah County's five dispatch centers, voted on years ago.
"We had requested that it initiate both types of calls — law enforcement and medical — but it was voted down," she said.
Because of the case involving Cox, Mecham said the policy was revisited and changed.
"We have taken this back to that user's group and requested again that a new process be in place, and they did approve," she said.
Cox, of Colorado Springs, Colo., died in a Provo hospital the day after the avalanche when she was taken off life support. Lone Peak District Fire Chief Brad Freeman said he can't say whether the 10-minute delay that occurred in getting his crew on the road would have made a difference for the woman, but said she would have at least had 10 more minutes of pure oxygen administered to her.
"I can't say she (Cox) would be alive today, but her chances would be a lot better," he said. "This cannot happen again."
With the policy changes, now whenever emergency dispatchers receive a call for search and rescue with an injured or trapped person, medical personnel will automatically be sent. A total of four new dispatch codes have been created — two of which will send medical — to better improve the 911 system in Utah County, Mecham said.
Lone Peak Fire District spokesman John McRae said there's no such thing as an emergency call that's handled perfectly. Each incident is reviewed to determine how improvements can be made. He said the department is pleased with the changes made because of this incident.
"It's tragic that this girl lost her life. But it's good, on the flip side, it's good we've taken the time to evaluate our procedures and policies and found things we could do better, and we address those and we change. That's the important thing," he said.
The next order of business for Lone Peak firefighters is to get an emergency phone installed in the Tibble Fork area — something they've been requesting for 10 years.
"Because you cannot get any cell coverage," McRae said, "getting that phone up there is crucial."
An emergency phone costs a seemingly manageable $5,000. But McRae said unfortunately, it sometimes takes a tragedy like the avalanche for such projects to become a priority.
The Lone Peak Fire District has set up an account at Bank of American Fork for people who want to donate toward getting an emergency phone.
Mecham said "appropriate action" had been taken as far as any possible discipline for the incident, including retraining dispatchers about the policy, as well as the coding changes.
"Our emphasis is always on sending all the help that is needed. If they're not needed, they can turn away when they're on scene," she said.
Utah Valley Dispatch Special Service District handled more than 250,000 calls in 2013. Only six to seven dispatchers work at one time, and just two of those people take calls, she said. A total of 47 of those calls were for incidents in American Fork Canyon, three of them being calls for search and rescue.