An interagency leadership team has abandoned plans to close this wildland fire dispatch center near Ken's Lake, as well as a second facility near Vernal. [Moab Sun News file photo]

Eastern Utah’s interagency wildland fire dispatch centers aren’t on the chopping block, after all.

Federal and state agencies formally reversed course last week, abandoning previously announced plans to close two communications facilities near Moab and Vernal, and consolidate those operations at a new center in Richfield.

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 interagency team’s leaders were still committed to those plans as recently as two weeks ago. But after they heard from local firefighters and others who attended the most recent meeting on the issue, they backed down, he said.

“Everybody in this area that’s involved some way with fire was against it,” Halliday told the Moab Sun News. “Nobody (locally) was in favor of shedding these two centers.”

U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State Director Ed Roberson indicated that the interagency team heard that message – and others like it.

“As we moved through this process, it became clear that there was a great deal of concern and uncertainty among fire managers, partners and the local communities that we serve,” Roberson said in a prepared statement. “From the start of this efficiency and cost management effort, we said clearly that we were prepared to stop and adjust it at any time if we could not offer the same level of safety and service to our customers.”

The Moab-area center is located in far northern San Juan County near Ken’s Lake, handling communications for wildland fire managers across a nearly 10-million-acre area that extends from southeastern Utah into western Colorado and northeastern Arizona. Its dispatchers 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.

In addition to the centers near Moab and Vernal, the interagency team runs three other facilities near the Interstate 15 corridor, in Cedar City, Richfield and Draper.

Plans to shut down the eastern Utah centers gained traction after the Utah Legislature allocated funding last year for a new communications center in Richfield, about 175 road miles west of Moab via U.S. Highway 191 and Interstate 70.

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service; the BLM; the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands; and other agencies argued that they could improve financial and operating efficiencies by consolidating those operations. But that argument didn’t sway Halliday.

“Since they just spent $2.4 million to build Richfield a new building … (I think) they were looking for a way to justify it,” he said.

Halliday said there’s a reason why there were five centers in the first place: They provide adequate communications from one end of Utah to the other.

“We felt (the efficiency argument) was not an adequate reason to shut it down – that being 200 miles away was just too far,” he said. “To have people who are unfamiliar with the area trying to move resources around during an emergency just (didn’t) make any sense.”

Utah State Forester Brian Cottam said that the team’s leaders value the relationships between their employees, partners and local communities.

“(And) without their support, we do not believe that we can offer the same level of critical services that we currently offer,” Cottam said.

Moab Valley Fire Department Chief Phillip Mosher said he isn’t sure why the team’s leaders had a change of heart. But he believes they ultimately made the right decision.

“I think it’s safer to keep those five dispatch centers open,” Mosher said.

The Moab Valley Fire Department doesn’t turn to the center’s dispatchers all that often, he said, unless it is responding to reports of wildland fires.

“It’s just so we can have a unified command and have contact with each other – otherwise, we have to go through sheriff’s dispatch,” Mosher said.

“Inconsistent messaging”

Before it announced its latest decision, the interagency team left open the possibility that it could always modify its plans as long as it could ensure the safety of emergency responders and maintain the ability to deliver the same level of service. However, the team struggled with its message – both internally and externally – according to a December 2017 consolidation update from Dispatch Consolidation Project Manager Tracy Dunford.

“Inconsistent messaging” based on differing interpretations of the same position caused confusion among the partnering agencies, Dunford wrote, and different ways of communicating that message also caused problems.

At the public level, Dunford wrote, there was an effort to get the team’s message out to citizens, but a press release was needed to help correct “misinformation” that fueled some citizens’ concerns.

“In many cases there is a misunderstanding about what the consolidation will do and how it will affect them,” he wrote.

Mosher said the interagency group of stakeholders made the consolidation decisions on their own, and didn’t consult departments like his.

“Without having input from anyone else, we just felt left out of it,” he said.

The December update on the consolidation plans confirms that the team’s communications strategy fell short, Mosher said.

“They said themselves that they didn’t do a good job of it,” he said. “They got that from us when they came to these meetings.”

Moving forward, U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester Nora Rasure said the interagency team needs to focus on everything from annual operations funding to long-term infrastructure needs and ongoing efforts to find an equitable funding model among agencies.

“We still have key issues that we need to take care of,” she said.

As Halliday looks back on the sequence of events leading up to the latest announcement, he’s just relieved that the process fizzled out.

“If they had gone farther, to where they actually shut down the sites, it would have been much, much harder to justify reopening them,” he said. “I’m very, very happy it didn’t go any farther than it did.”

Even so, Halliday said he thinks that team stakeholders wasted time and money on the now-abandoned consolidation process.

“If they had brought us in at the beginning, I think they could have saved a lot of money,” he said.

Interagency team abandons plans to merge communications operations in Richfield

I’m very, very happy it didn’t go any farther than it did.