Summit County public safety groups tout emergency response efforts
First responders, county staffers detail how they collaborate during a crisis
Public safety was a major theme of Wednesday’s Summit County Council meeting as the panel heard from representatives of county agencies about what their organizations are doing to protect the community in an emergency.
Fire officials anticipated this summer would be dangerous as dry weather and a persistent drought lead to more burns. Crews have already responded to several small fires in Summit County, which has increased concern among the community, said Janna Young, the interim county manager.
To help ease fears, members of the Park City Fire District, the North Summit Fire District, the South Summit Fire District, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office – including Search and Rescue and dispatch – as well as the county’s fire warden and emergency manager, presented a quick overview of they’re doing to prepare when called to respond.
With the dispatch center at the center of allocating resources, Sheriff’s Office Lt. Gus Sandahl detailed what happens when a report comes in. He said the first call is often made on a cell phone, which allows dispatchers to use mapping to locate where it’s being made. Dispatchers verify the location and will enter the call on a computer system. First responders can see the report and are also alerted through the iSpy program. Dispatchers continue to provide updates about the incident to crews as they’re en route.
“The responding captain or commander for the fire districts will then determine if they want us to page or notify additional resources. We’re the hub to do that, of course. They may wait until they get on scene to assess further or sometimes, they’re contacting additional resources on their own,” Sandahl said.
The crews continue communicating with dispatchers, who then relay the information to other responders. Summit County Dispatch is also tasked with making reverse 911 calls when necessary. Sandahl said the job is often overwhelming. Dispatchers can spend hours taking phone calls and corresponding with other public safety agencies.
The county’s Emergency Management Department joins the effort after receiving an alert from dispatch. Kathryn McMullin, the county’s emergency manager, said the emergency operations center would transition into a monitoring mode. Public alerts may be issued and staffers work out the logistics behind the scenes. In some cases, they may begin creating shelters and distributing supplies.
While county agencies help assess the situation and coordinate the resources, fire crews work to assist.
Park City Deputy Fire Chief Pete Emery said the fire district has seven stations staffed with crews certified to fight wildland fires. Firefighting vehicles are also equipped with specific wildfire hoses and radios during the summer.
“The best example of Park City Fire’s approach is we really want to get a hold of it within the first 10 minutes. We have the ability to throw 25-plus personnel on that immediately,” Emery said.
He also highlighted the collaboration between Park City Fire and other fire agencies. He said a battalion chief drove by the Parleys Canyon Fire last summer and quickly realized it was already beyond local control, which allowed him to call for air support before arriving on the scene. The arrival of state resources allowed Park City Fire to step back and focus on protecting structures in the nearby Summit Park.
County Councilor Roger Armstrong noted Park City Fire’s quick response, even though the blaze started just outside of Summit County. Emery explained the fire district has an automatic mutual aid agreement with the Unified Fire Authority. Park City Fire responds to calls for car accidents and fires up to Lamb’s Canyon because crews can often arrive first.
North Summit Fire District Chief Ben Nielson and South Summit Fire District Chief Scott Anderson also appeared before the County Council. Neilson said the county’s fire departments all perform the same tasks, but the service levels can vary depending on staffing and equipment.
Nielsen outlined fire crews’ quick response to the Wanship Fire that burned close to 40 acres on July 17. The blaze started inside a barn, but high winds pushed the fire onto the nearby land. This led firefighters to transition to a wildfire approach as they defended homes in the area.
Most people in the North Summit and South Summit fire districts are certified to fight wildland fires with the remainder in training. Anderson said South Summit Fire has eight wildland units that are all properly equipped. The 26-person, volunteer-run district typically responds to calls from home, but Anderson said they are often the first to arrive on the scene. Response times can range from less than five minutes to 45 minutes depending on where the incident is occurring.
Fire crews also keep in contact with Bryce Boyer, the county’s fire warden. Boyer has the authority to coordinate and collaborate with additional crews. He’s also responsible for helping determine how to respond. In any case, firefighters will call in for higher-level county or state resources if a fire becomes unmanageable.
When nearby structures are threatened, the Sheriff’s Office may decide to order an evacuation. Sheriff Justin Martinez said he works collaboratively with the fire districts to determine if residents should be ordered to leave. If an order is put out, the Sheriff’s Office can mobilize Search and Rescue crews to move people out of the fire line.
Teams begin going door to door when an evacuation order is given, alert the resident and document that they visited the address, according to Sheriff’s Office Lt. Alan Siddoway, who heads Search and Rescue. Martinez said there are often people who choose to ignore the mandatory evacuation, but he isn’t authorized to remove an adult from their residence. The Sheriff’s Office can only tell residents first responders won’t return for a rescue.
Evacuations become more complicated in harder-to-reach communities like Tollgate Canyon or areas with short-term rentals where visitors may be unfamiliar with geography. The issue is expected to become more complicated as more people travel to the area, Armstrong said. McMullin indicated staffers are considering new ways to increase the county’s alert system and improve first responders’ technology.
Armstrong suggested organizing a collaborative event where the community, various homeowner’s associations and first responders can practice what to do if residents are ordered to leave. Representatives from the county’s public safety agencies seemed responsive to the idea.
“There’s a lot of effort underway,” McMullin said. “You can’t do a proper exercise until you have a proper plan.”
Summit County Clerk Evelyn Furse said ballots are expected to be mailed on Oct. 18 and should arrive later that week.
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