The Oro Valley Police Department will soon begin testing a traffic signal preemption system aimed at increasing emergency response times while reducing the risk of accidents.

The Town Council recently approved spending $4,200 to test six signal-changing devices called emitters over the next six months to evaluate their impact on law enforcement emergency response time within the town.

Emitters are devices that send a signal to a detector in a traffic signal that reads a vehicle's access code and allows a light to change. Another element in the traffic signal determines what kind of vehicle is requesting access through an intersection and in what order vehicles will be allowed to go through if more than one vehicle is making the request.

The emitters are being provided by the Golder Ranch Fire District under an intergovernmental agreement that Golder Ranch hopes will provide the data for evaluating whether it will be a problem to allow another public entity dispatched by a separate communications center access to the system, wrote Golder Ranch Fire District Chief John Fink in a May 2 letter to Oro Valley Town Manager Chuck Sweet.

Both Golder Ranch and Northwest Fire District are dispatched by the same communications center and, as a result, both agencies are aware of when the other is responding to calls

Responding to emergency situations with lights and flashers hasn't been a problem in Oro Valley, but as the town grows and technology becomes available, a traffic signal preemption system such as OPTICOM , manufactured by 3M Corp., would give the department a chance to get out in front before there are problems, said Police Chief Danny Sharp.

Initially the testing will be done in connection with traffic signals along Oracle Road, north of Hardy Drive, within Oro Valley. If the tests are successful, all of the town's existing signals would be equipped to respond to the emitters. As various roadway projects are completed, about a dozen intersection signals would be so equipped, Sharp said.

Eventually Sharp said he would like to explore the application of such a system in the town's gated communities so that officers don't have to wait for someone to open the gates in an emergency.

Speeding response times will help save residents' lives and reduce the time spent in transporting victims, thus increasing the overall efficiency of the department, Sharp said. Golder Ranch is providing the training in use and operation of the system without cost.

The system being used by Golder Ranch is also being used by the Northwest Fire District.

Rural/Metro Corp. has been trying to gain access to the system as well through intergovernmental agreements between Pima County and the three fire districts served by Rural/Metro: the North Ranch/Linda Vista Fire District, Heritage Hills Fire District and the La Canada Fire District.

About six weeks ago, Kurt Weinrich, director of the Pima County Department of Transportation and Flood Control District, indicated drafts of intergovernmental agreements should be available to the three districts within a week. At the time those agreements had been under review for nine months.

They are still being reviewed and county officials have been unable to say when a decision will be reached. Rural/Metro has been trying to gain access to a signal preemption system since 1999.

In April, after a Northwest EXPLORER story outlining Rural/Metro's efforts to gain access to the OPTICOM system, Jeff Piechura, Northwest Fire District Chief, indicated in a monthly newsletter that he had addressed the issuance of intergovernmental agreements to the three fire districts with County Manager Chuck Huckelberry, who, according to Piechura, was not even aware of any IGAs being proposed.

County transportation officials have indicated their support for providing access to Rural/Metro through the IGAs on the ground that the northwest community overall would benefit if all agencies could increase emergency response times while reducing the risks involved in responding to emergencies.

However, they say Huckelberry is opposed, as are both Northwest and Golder Ranch. They argue that it would pose liability concerns and that Rural/Metro, as a for-profit business, shouldn't benefit from a system financed by public tax dollars. Huckelberry could not be reached for comment.

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