An audit of the state’s 911 emergency phone line operations found that Utah’s largest dispatch center hasn’t met national call answering standards in more than five years, forcing thousands of callers a year to wait more than a minute to report emergencies.

That finding and others were released Tuesday in a legislative audit, a follow-up to one released in December 2019 that looked at the Utah Communications Authority (UCA) and the state’s 911 emergency operations. It found compatibility issues between agencies’ different radio systems.

In addition to long wait times for callers to the Salt Lake Valley Communications Center, known as VECC, the audit also found issues with dispatch centers that only staffed one call taker, saying that employee could be easily overwhelmed during an emergency.

Long waits

Auditors analyzed call wait times at Utah emergency dispatch centers from 2015 to 2019. They found that more than 80% of the 31 public safety answering points complied with a standard set by the National Emergency Number Association for how fast dispatchers should answer calls.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The association said dispatchers answer 90% of calls within 15 seconds, and 95% of calls within 20 seconds. UCA adopted these standards for Utah in 2020.

There wasn’t a single month during those five years when VECC met the standard to answer 95% of their calls within 20 seconds.

In 2019 alone, the report stated, 17,562 people calling 911 waited more than one minute before someone answered their call.

Salt Lake City 911 was out of compliance just over half the time. Beaver County Sheriff, San Juan County Sheriff, Weber Area 911 and Rich County Sheriff each periodically were out of compliance, however only briefly. They all answered the vast majority of their calls within the 20-second threshold more than 90% of the time.

Auditors noted that while Salt Lake City 911 had issues early on, they improved and consistently met the national standards from December 2017 to December 2019.

“In situations where people are seeking emergency assistance with police, fire, or medical needs, delayed response is both frustrating and potentially dangerous for callers,” auditors wrote.

The report recommended VECC set performance standards and improve 911 call answering times.

VECC officials said they recognize the “weaknesses that are present” and have tried to fix them — “well before this audit called out these problems,” according to a response letter signed by executive director Scott Ruf and Dan Petersen, chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

They wrote that over the last six months, VECC has made sure all the agencies it dispatches use the same computer-aided dispatch platform and has improved communication with the Utah Highway Patrol to cut down on 911 call transfers.

Staffing standards

Another issue the audit found was that many small dispatcher centers only staff one dispatcher at a time — and if too many calls come in at once, those lone employees can be overwhelmed.

The audit noted that happened in early 2020 when a large fire broke out. While a dispatcher handled the emergency after reaching out for help to a neighboring dispatcher center, auditors note this approach is risky without a formal partnership.

While the “traditional solution” to this issue would be hiring more staff so at least two dispatchers were on duty at all times, auditors noted that some Utah dispatch centers receive very few calls at certain hours and “fear paying extra staff to sit around with nothing to do.”

In those cases, auditors recommended that jail staff be trained as 911 dispatchers. This is happening in Emery County. Another option the report offered was that smaller center could contract with larger dispatcher centers.

Auditors recommended the UCA board work with others to create staffing standards or other systems to make sure 911 centers are adequately staffed for emergencies.

The Utah Department of Health said that it agreed with auditors and would revise administrative rules to include staffing minimums.

In its response, UCA noted that it tried to adopt a standard that required at least two 911 dispatchers to be working at a time, but it was met with resistance from sheriffs, emergency dispatch center leaders and government officials.

It added that a new system currently being installed will help with communication between dispatcher centers during emergency situations, but noted that cross-training jail employees as dispatchers could be dangerous for corrections officers, because an inmate could “take advantage of a distracted jail employee.”

Still, UCA said it accepts auditors’ recommendations.