The decision by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office to withdraw from the Salt Lake Valley's busiest dispatch center and offer its own 911 service comes on the heels of emergency personnel being sent to wrong addresses in two recent high-profile cases.
Sheriff Jim Winder, speaking specifically to one of the incidents, said the mistakes did not directly have an impact on his decision.
"(The fire) happened after we had already made our decision," Winder said. "But it validates some of our concerns."
Authorities stress they don't believe the ultimate outcomes would have been any different if they had been sent to the right addresses the first time. And officials at the Valley Emergency Communications Center said both cases have been investigated to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
On Nov. 15, Kenneth G. Dolezsar was shot and killed in the parking lot of Village Inn, 10600 South 150 West. A witness in the parking lot called 911 on his cell phone and stated he was at the Village Inn at South Towne Mall in Sandy. The dispatcher, however, sent Murray police to the Village Inn near 5900 South and State Street.
"It was an error on the call taker's part," said VECC Fire Operations Manager Mike Veenendaal who noted disciplinary action was taken.
In another high-profile case, crews from the Unified Fire Authority were called Oct. 28 to respond to a house fire in Kearns. The bodies of 40-year-old Sharon Al-Shimmary and her children, 9-year-old Ashley, 7-year-old Christopher and 2-year-old Heather, were later found inside a bedroom.
Again, crews were initially sent to the wrong address. In that case, however, Veenendaal said it was not the fault of the 911 call taker.
In both cases, the delay in response to the correct address was a couple of minutes.
In the Village Inn shooting, the mistake happened when the dispatcher called up "Village Inn" on his computer and a list of addresses popped up. Rather than the South Towne Mall address, the dispatcher picked the one for Fashion Place without verifying it on his screen, Veenendaal said.
As the dispatcher continued talking with the caller, he realized the mistake he made and fixed it. Murray police also arrived at the Village Inn and found no problem.
With the fire, VECC said that incident was the result of a "perfect storm" of conditions. It also highlighted the importance of all cities and townships in the county to keep their records updated with VECC.
The fire was at 5723 S. Stone Bluff Way (5550 West). The initial 911 call came from a resident on Arnica Ridge Circle, said UFA Capt. Jay Torgersen. That street, however, had not been added to VECC's computer system.
The caller was actually some distance away from the house fire and the best description the caller could give was that the incident was up the street, Torgersen said.
In cases where a street's location isn't available, VECC dispatchers have a drop-down menu that lists several address possibilities, with the top choice being the right one 99 percent of the time, said VECC spokeswoman Geana Randall. In this case, the address was not correct and the dispatcher sent crews to an address about a block and a half away.
A responding Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy was flagged down by another resident who directed him to the Stone Bluff house, Winder said.
To the dispatcher's credit, Randall said she stayed on the phone with the 911 caller until UFA crews arrived. The caller was able to tell the dispatcher the fire engine had just driven by and she also helped guide them to the correct destination. The same was true for the dispatcher in the Village Inn homicide.
Again, both Winder and Torgersen stressed the fire had been smoldering for a while and the family was likely dead before they arrived.
"It did not make any kind of difference to the outcome of the call," Torgersen said.
"The concern I had was we could have lost the entire scene. Had the fire kicked up any worse, we would have lost the evidence relative to that case," Winder said.
Torgersen said the UFA looked into why they were sent to the wrong address and was "satisfied with the response from VECC that corrections had been made with this particular circumstance."
In the case of the Kearns fire, Veenendaal said the computers dispatchers use are only as good as the information put into them.
"Who didn't (update the address)? That's what I'd like to know," he said. "The other side is we stayed with them and we stayed with it."
Veenendaal doesn't deny the two incidents are troublesome.
"Sure it concerns us. That's one of the biggest things we do is make sure the addresses are correct," he said. "It does happen. We do get bad addresses. I'd like to say it's a perfect world and we don't have them. But it isn't."
On the flip side, however, Veenendaal said VECC receives between 2,000 to 4,000 calls a day. But the cases that are successful or the ones in which dispatchers go the extra mile to find a victim or patient are never reported.
"There's another side to this story," he said. "Ninety percent of what we do, you don't see. This is a tough job. There is a lot of stress and pressure. (Dispatchers) never get enough credit. They always hear about the negative."
In one recent case, a man who was nearly passed out in a ditch on the side of the road called his boss who in turn called 911. The boss thought the man was near 9000 South and 150 East. The dispatcher, however, was able to determine the man was near 4000 South and 700 West, Veenendaal said.
"We are continually re-instructing our call takers to verify the address," he said.Emergency crews are sent to the correct address more than 90 percent of the time, something that didn't happen a couple of years ago, he said. Likewise, improved technology now allows for dispatchers to trace some cell phone calls, something they couldn't do with the 911 system a year ago, he said. Approximately 60 percent of VECC's 911 calls are from cell phones, he said.
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