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County rejects disaster bus idea

A year after the devastating March 13 storm pointed out flaws in Citrus County's emergency communications system, some of those problems persist, the county's public safety director said Tuesday.

But there was a tempest of a different sort Tuesday when the director, Sheriff's Capt. Jeffrey Dawsy, appeared before the County Commission to seek more money to make needed improvements faster. The board turned him down.

Dawsy asked the commission to support buying a "mobile command center" _ a 44-foot bus equipped with radios that would allow dispatchers to coordinate rescuers if a storm blew down the main antenna at the county's Emergency Operations Center.

What the commissioners didn't like is that the purchase would take away money earmarked for buying more portable radios that have been promised since last fall to the county's police, fire and ambulance workers.

Commission Chairman Frank Schiraldi said Dawsy had "flip-flopped" in his priorities. He suggested the board consider the requests for additional money this summer when it votes on next year's budget, with priority given first to the portable radios.

Of course, by then the hurricane season will have begun.

"Right now, we have no backup capability," said an obviously frustrated Dawsy. "If a storm hit the (antenna) tower at the EOC, we would lose any ability to coordinate like we did last March. . . . I'm sitting in a very precarious situation that I don't want to be sitting in."

A common complaint during last March's storm is that communications coordination was poor. A step toward improving the system came last fall when the commission approved Dawsy's plan to buy more portable radios.

But Dawsy explained Tuesday how that plan has run into a roadblock _ all because a misunderstanding over traffic tickets.

The plan approved by the commissioners placed a surcharge of $12.50 on every moving violation cited within the county. That was supposed to raise $112,000 for 148 portable or mobile radios.

The radios were to be part of an expanded "trunking" system, which automatically diverts radio traffic to available frequencies to reduce conflicting signals. The sheriff's office now has only limited trunking capability.

However, the $112,000 was an estimate based on 9,000 tickets written each year in 1991 and 1992, a figure supplied by the clerk of the court, Dawsy said. It turned out the figure was wrong: of 9,000 traffic tickets written, only about half of them were for moving violations. So Dawsy expects to receive only about $50,000 this year.

That isn't enough to begin buying portable radios, Dawsy says, because the sheriff's office also needs the trunking equipment, and the entire package must be purchased together.

Instead, he proposed applying up to $25,000 from the ticket surcharge as matching funds toward a state grant to buy and outfit the command bus.

Had the county applied for and won that grant, the state would have covered the bus' cost of $150,000. The county would have installed $150,000 worth of radio gear in the bus and paid it off over seven years with the ticket money.

The portable radios are in addition to that; Dawsy suggested using county tax dollars to complete that purchase.

Even if the commissioners were game, Dawsy estimates it will cost a total of $4-million to make all the improvements needed so that rescue workers can adequately talk to each other during a disaster.

But Schiraldi said Dawsy should have brought up the command bus during last fall's discussions about the surcharge.

He also noted it would be larger than the vans used as mobile posts by sheriff's offices in nearby counties. Dawsy acknowledged the bus would be more sophisticated, the first of its kind for Florida.

Dawsy suggested it could also be used as an operations base at crowd events, in such disparate situations as the Jerome Bunch shooting or the Strawberry Festival in Floral City. And, Dawsy said, it would be cheaper than buying a used bus or building a second emergency operations center.

The board allowed Dawsy to apply for a state grant that would cover the entire cost of the bus and the gear. But as Dawsy pointed out, the chances of getting the grant without a county match will be less.