Utah criminals may be able to run, but they won't be able to hide much longer.

The Transportation and Public Safety Interim Committee Wednesday gave its unanimous approval to a proposal by the Department of Public Safety to purchase the latest high-tech computer designed to identify fingerprints.Actually, Utah would be one of six Western states that would jointly purchase the computer, which law enforcement agencies say will revolutionize criminology.

"It's the most important law enforcement tool since fingerprints were first discovered in the 1800s," said John T. Nielsen, Commissioner of Public Safety.

Currently, law enforcement agencies must be able to match a suspect to a fingerprint to make a match. If officers must cross reference large numbers of prints without known suspects, the process can take literally months, if not years.

With the new computer network, called the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, law enforcement simply submits an unidentified fingerprint and the computer matches it to prints on file in its voluminous memory. The computer is so fast, identification can usually be made within minutes.

Under the proposal, Utah's share of the costs would be about $250,000. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada would also participate. All other Western states, which currently have their own systems, would then be tied into the regional fingerprint identification system.

That would give Utah authorities access to the tens of millions of fingerprints on file in neighboring states, said Doug Bodrero, deputy commissioner of public safety.

States have been meeting since December to discuss the regional network. Other states as far away as Arkansas have asked to join, but so far they have been turned down.

Authorities from Utah and the other five states next week will open bids from three competing companies to see which can offer the best price on a new system for the six states, as well as a system that will allow the other Western states to communicate.

The issue must still be approved by the Legislature in January.