State and federal agencies made the decision last week to eventually close the Moab Interagency Fire Center near Ken's Lake and consolidate dispatchers' operations at a new facility in Richfield. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Both of eastern Utah’s interagency wildland fire dispatch centers – including one near Ken’s Lake – will close at a still-undetermined date, under plans to consolidate those operations at a new facility in Richfield.

Representatives from numerous state and federal agencies made the decision last week to eventually shutter the communications facilities near Moab and Vernal in an effort to improve financial and operating efficiencies.

“This is not a decision that was made lightly,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant said. “There were a lot of discussions looking into the pros and cons and different options.”

Moab Valley Fire Department chief Phillip Mosher said he heard officials say that the current interagency dispatch system in Utah is working well as is, yet the agencies still want to implement cost reductions.

From his perspective, though, the looming closure of the Ken’s Lake-area dispatch center is a concern because its dispatchers cover a nearly 10-million-acre area. They also respond to an average of 400 incidents per year, during a fire season that runs from March through October, according to Moab Interagency Fire Center statistics.

“I think (the issue is) communication and overall safety, because we have local dispatchers there who know the area,” Mosher said. “That’s always our hardest thing to do, is communicate.”

An interagency task force that came up with the plans includes representatives from the regional offices of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, as well as the Utah and Arizona state offices of the BLM and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Before the agencies announced their decision on July 10, task force members evaluated the workloads, current operating costs and configuration of existing dispatch systems across Utah. The group was then asked to make recommendations for changes, based on financial and operating efficiencies, while still ensuring public and firefighter safety.

While the agencies still need to figure out how they’re going to implement the agencies’ plans over the next few years, the task force suggested that the dispatch centers statewide can get by with four to six fewer permanent positions. Any potential impacts to full-time employees could be minimized by the fact the agencies have some vacancies statewide, so not all of those positions are filled at this time.

A report from the task force recommends options for relocating permanent interagency employees, or helping them find other positions.

“We care deeply about the people we have,” Bryant said. “They do great work.”

If any local employees chose to remain, however, they’d have to relocate to one of three remaining dispatch centers near the Interstate 15 corridor: in Cedar City, Richfield or Draper.

“(The task force) felt the most efficient configuration for Utah moving forward would be three operations centers,” Bryant said.

Grand County Council member Greg Halliday – who also serves as a wildland firefighter and as a training officer with the Castle Valley Fire Department – said the centers in eastern Utah are essential to ensuring adequate coverage of the entire state.

“We need to keep it the way it is,” Halliday said. “They put these fire centers where they are for a reason.”

Richfield is about 175 road miles west of Moab via U.S. Highway 191 and Interstate 70, and Halliday is concerned that the move to centralize those dispatch operations will shift resources away from local wildland firefighters.

“I don’t like this idea because it just puts the whole thing to fight fires that much farther away,” he said.

Bryant said that officials heard those kinds of concerns “loud and clear” when they attended the June meeting in Moab, and she said that they are committed to ensuring that employees elsewhere understand the lay of the land in southeastern Utah.

“That is probably one of the highest priorities we will be looking at,” she said. “… We’ll make sure that the transfer of knowledge happens as part of the implementation of this decision.”

Although Richfield is home to an existing wildland fire dispatch center, Bryant said that the Utah Legislature allocated funding this year for a new interagency facility in the Sevier County seat.

“Essentially, it’s an opportunity to work with the state to build a facility that meets multiple agency needs,” she said.

Halliday, though, thinks that any cost savings could be realized by closing the current Richfield center and continuing to invest in the centers on the state’s eastern fringes, where the dispatchers are spaced farther apart.

“My feeling is, if they’re going to do away with any of these, it should be the one in Richfield because it’s only 100 miles from the one in Cedar City,” he said.

Halliday’s perspective is not unique among local and regional wildland firefighters, judging by the feedback he and others heard during a meeting in Moab last month.

According to Halliday, about four dozen firefighters from southeastern Utah – and even western Colorado and northern Arizona – attended the meeting, and none of them spoke in favor of the agencies’ plans.

“Everybody was in opposition,” Halliday said. “There was nobody that was in support of doing this.”

As they develop their plan to implement the task force’s vision, Bryant said that the agencies can always reverse course if they see that it’s not working.

“They have the opportunity to revisit that decision,” she said.

Bryant said that each of the five existing centers has provided “ready, reliable and responsive” service over the years, while working together in effective and efficient ways. In the future, she said, the agencies want to look at the configuration of the three-center structure to ensure that service continues.

“It’s really important to all of us that we maintain the level of service,” she said.

Local firefighters raise concerns about impacts on communication

We need to keep it the way it is … They put these fire centers where they are for a reason.