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Drowning response time draws lawsuit

Little Davina Celler was barely alive when she was pulled unconscious from a swimming pool on the western edge of Hillsborough County on April 3, 1989.

Davina's parents said Hillsborough fire rescuers arrived at the S Racetrack Road home about seven minutes after 911 was called. Paramedics showed up with life-support equipment six minutes after that.

But they were too late to save the 14-month-old girl.

Herbert and Amelia Celler said their daughter's death could have been prevented if the 911 dispatcher had called the Oldsmar Fire Station in Pinellas County instead of a Hillsborough station. The Oldsmar station is only 1.5 miles from their Twin Branch Acres home, and several minutes closer than the nearest Hillsborough station.

But Oldsmar wasn't called in, and this month the Cellers filed a lawsuit against Hillsborough County in circuit court. They said the county had a responsibility to engineer a better system of providing emergency service with the neighboring Pinellas city.

"Our whole argument is that if the system had been operated more efficiently, and if they had had emergency personnel on the scene much, much faster, then we believe the child would still be alive today," said Alan Watson, the Cellers' attorney. "Obviously, when you have people (living) on the county line, it makes no sense to send medical help from many miles away when you have a station that could solve the problem only a mile away."

Although he agreed the girl's death was tragic, Assistant County Attorney Bob Warchola said the county wasn't responsible. He declined to comment further on the case.

The Cellers declined to comment for this story, but Watson said their reasons for filing the suit go beyond money.

"One of their primary considerations is to make sure this doesn't happen again," Watson said.

Nearly three years after Davina Celler's death, some changes have been made in the way emergency services work. But some residents in far-flung areas said they still have questions about the system.

Just a few months after the Celler accident, Hillsborough County negotiated a new agreement with Oldsmar. Under that arrangement, emergency calls from the upscale Twin Branch Acres neighborhood and the area along S Racetrack Road are forwarded to Oldsmar through the Pinellas County 911 system.

If the Oldsmar station has a fire engine available, it is sent to the emergency scene. Firefighters administer first aid or try to contain any fire until a Hillsborough rescue team arrives.

"We've had a mutual aid agreement with Hillsborough County for a long time," said Oldsmar Fire Captain Robert Carman. "When it's utilized, it's very effective. It all depends on what Hillsborough's response time would be. If they have a unit that's close, say within six or eight minutes, they won't call us."

Carman said his station answers about 10 calls a month in Northwest Hillsborough. Twin Branch Acres also is covered by county stations at 8901 Memorial Highway and 7502 Gunn Highway.

Hillsborough County's average response time of 10 to 12 minutes can become longer if traffic is heavy along W Hillsborough Avenue or Race Track Road, said Robert Mertens, the Hillsborough Fire Department's chief of volunteer services.

Hillsborough also has what it calls mutual aid agreements with every surrounding county, Mertens said. But those agreements are somewhat different than the Oldsmar arrangement.

They say only that when one agency needs help, another will respond if it can. The arrangements usually come into play with a major fire or other disaster.

Still, the county faces a continuing problem in determining how best to respond to emergencies in rural areas, many of which are covered by volunteer stations.

In rural areas, the Hillsborough Fire Department tries to respond within 10 minutes, compared to a five-minute response goal for urban areas.

"People know that one of the facts of living out in the country is that it's farther away from normal emergency care," said Larry Gisbert, manager of the Hillsborough emergency dispatch system.

The county is planning several new stations to improve rural coverage.

Hillsborough Fire Chief Jim Callahan said plans for a new fire station near the Westchase subdivision in Northwest Hillsborough are complete. The only item remaining is negotiations with the county for road extensions for better access to the area.

But that station has been in the planning stages since the mid-1980s, and a date for construction has not been set.

Another step that may improve rural coverage is a regular meeting of Tampa Bay area fire chiefs. The meetings, started by the Tampa Fire Department, are aimed at improving communication among departments.

"The whole purpose is for us to get to know each other," said Tampa Fire Chief William Austin. "It makes it a lot easier to work with mutual aid agreements when you know who you're talking to on the phone."

Meanwhile, Twin Branch Acres resident Dianne Calandra is still worried that Davina Celler's death won't be the last of its kind in her neighborhood.

"We've just installed a pool, and I have a 6-year-old child. There's always the potential for danger," Calandra said. "The thought of the response time being as bad as it is is frightening."