Reports of illegal fireworks inundate Payette County dispatch center on Fourth of July

Linda Hoxie, dispatch supervisor at the Payette County Sheriff’s dispatch center, stands up while working in this photo from October of 2018. 

ONTARIO — Each year on the Fourth of July, Payette County Dispatch sees a 50% spike in emergency calls for several hours — typically between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., according to Payette County Sheriff’s Lt. Andy Creech. This year was an exception, however, as the increase was 137%, with dispatchers having to answer 100 phone calls in a nine-hour time period after Malheur County’s dispatch phone system shut down.

Of those calls, 24 were transferred to Malheur County or other jurisdictions.

According to Malheur County Undersheriff Travis Johnson, Malheur County’s 911 dispatch center was down for approximately 24 hours. Johnson said he’s unsure of when exactly the issue started, but it was early on Thursday morning and lasted until this morning.

Johnson said Malheur County’s dispatch has two servers for 911 calls, and there was an issue with reconnecting when one server went down to undergo routine self-maintenance.

While Malheur County’s system was down, “all emergency phone calls were transferred to the Payette County Dispatch Center. Payette County would answer the emergency calls and transfer them to Malheur County’s non-emergency line,” according to a news release from the Payette County Sheriff’s Office.

Payette County Dispatch handled all incoming emergency calls in that time frame, the release states.

Luckily for Malheur County, the lines are set up so that the connect to the Payette County Sheriff’s Department is immediate and Johnson said he’s unaware of any issues regarding calls being taken.

“The back-up procedure went smoothly,” he said. “It’s nice to have a close neighbor who understands the area like that. We work well with Payette County.”

Malheur County Sheriff’s Office’s 911 dispatch center uses CenturyLink and Johnson said CenturyLink is aware of the problem and are working to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Even without having to take calls for another dispatch center, the influx of emergency calls surrounding the holiday already puts a significant “strain on emergency services,” Creech said, as there is no extra staff to handle the busy period as the sheriff’s office doesn’t pay overtime to dispatchers.

While there might be some on-call help available, it is mostly left to those already on shift to deal with the extra emergency calls mostly prompted by the setting off of fireworks.

And while calling in to report someone setting off illegal fireworks might seem like the admirable thing to do, Creech cautions overburdening emergency services on a night that already sees a hike in calls due to such things as medical emergencies, intoxicated driving and fires.

“We get so many calls on illegal fireworks and noise, disturbing the peace kind of calls,” Creech said, adding that at the same time there is an increase of callers reporting runaway dogs, traffic incidents and DUIs.

On an average year, Payette County Dispatch can see the emergency call load double during some of the evening hours, Creech said.

“It really taxes our dispatch center as they try to handle all the normal things with that on top,” he said.

The majority of calls — 22 of them between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. — were for illegal fireworks. In that same nine-hour window, sheriff’s deputies conducted 22 traffic stops and made four arrests, according to a news release from the Sheriff’s Office today.

The increase of actual emergencies coupled with the abundance of calls for illegal fireworks make it “really hard for us to address” the latter, Creech said.

In addition, he pointed to Idaho’s law governing fireworks that often causes “frustration.”

“There’s this weird section of the law where you can sell but not light off [certain aerial fireworks],” he said. “Until they make it legal to buy and light them, or not legal to buy them and light them, it’s going to be an ongoing problem… It’s obvious if you’re buying them what you’re going to do with them.”

The calls weren’t isolated to Independence Day, however, as Creech said dispatch was dealing with it all week already.

“’Tis the season. After the fifth is here, we’ll calm down and move on from it,” he said, adding that he was hopeful that unless it was an actual emergency, fewer people would call about shooting off illegal fireworks on the next Fourth of July.

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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