Our View: The vital link that failed | SierraSun.com

Our View: The vital link that failed

News that 911 emergency dispatchers brushed off early calls about South Lake Tahoe’s Angora fire are not only obviously disturbing but raise questions deserving answers.

The dispatchers, located in the Truckee California Highway Patrol office some 40 miles away from the South Shore, told the first concerned callers that smoke rising above the forest was from a controlled burn. It wasn’t until so many calls started to come in that two dispatchers began trying to find out what was really going on.

That carelessness caused a seven-to-nine minute delay in their response, recordings of the 911 calls that were released Friday show. Capt. Gary Ross, commander of the CHP field office in Truckee, told the Associated Press that the dispatcher’s early dismissals, in turn, caused a delayed response to the fire.

Concerns are two-fold here. The trust vested in public safety dispatchers is just as strong as that of police officers, firefighters and others sworn to serve and protect.

Like cops, firefighters or any professionals who deal with critical situations, the public expects dispatchers to use as much good judgment as the men and women out on the beat.

The CHP’s own Web site says it all: Dispatchers are the “vital link between officers in the field, the general public, and other agencies.”

That’s why we’re at a loss over the dispatchers’ nonchalance ” or ignorance ” concerning a smoke plume over the Sierra in one of the driest summers in decades. A controlled burn on a dry and windy summer afternoon in the middle of a tinderbox? Come on.

This whole situation also begs the question as to why an emergency call from one county is routed to dispatchers miles and miles away from its origin in another county. Sending emergency calls to dispatchers who lack the intimate local knowledge of an area is a system that failed in the Angora fire and should be suspected of failing in the future.

We agree with Assemblyman Ted Gaines that California’s 911 system should be modified to route calls directly to county emergency responders. Perhaps such a system works for vehicle accidents dealt with by the CHP, but for wildland fires?

Nobody will know how the Angora fire would have played out had the dispatchers been more timely. Without that seven-to-nine minute delay, would some ” or all ” of the 254 homes that burned been spared?

The two dispatchers, who between them have nearly 44 years of experience, have been reassigned while the CHP investigates. It may well be time to investigate ways to push for changes to California’s 911 system to prevent such communication delays in the future.