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Tragedies result in new policies for 911 system

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Twice in the past month, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies have been slow to respond to crucial 911 emergency calls. Both calls had tragic results: One woman was killed and another raped.

And while there is no way to know if a deputy's earlier arrival could have prevented the crimes, sheriff's officials said Tuesday they plan to make changes.

Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Tom DePolis said officials will improve communications between deputies, dispatchers and supervisors and consider asking the County Commission this summer for extra money in the annual budget to put more deputies on the streets.

"We are out of places to pull folks from," DePolis said. "We either ask the County Commission for more money, or we start collapsing programs."

Sheriff's officials said lack of personnel was to blame for the slow response time early Sunday to a woman who called 911 to report a suspicious white van was following her as she walked along Lutz-Lake Fern Road. It took a deputy 35 minutes to respond. When he arrived, the woman, whom dispatchers had told to stay put, was gone.

Authorities later learned the woman reported being kidnapped by two men in the van and driven to Pasco County where she was raped in a field.

The call was not considered a priority because the woman told the 911 operator she thought the men had gone, said sheriff's spokesman Lt. David Gee.

A deputy dispatched to the call was sidetracked by a higher priority call after four men crashed a stolen car at Florida and Bearss avenues, just minutes after the woman reported her concerns to authorities.

A similar situation in February delayed a deputy's response to a 911 call from a house painter who reported a woman being beaten in the home of convicted rapist Lawrence Singleton. Deputies in the area were busy on other calls.

When a deputy arrived at Singleton's home 34 minutes later, he found Roxanne Hayes, 31, stabbed to death.

Though sheriff's officials do not keep track of complaints about delayed response, there have been other high-profile incidents, including a 68-year-old woman in 1995 who lay alone and helpless on her living room floor while two pit bulls attacked her for 17 minutes before help arrived.

DePolis acknowledged that 30-minute response times to emergency calls are unacceptable, but pointed to statistics as an indication the sheriff's office is understaffed.

According to 1996 budget figures, the sheriff's office had 943 deputies to cover 933 square miles and 571,000 residents, about 1.6 deputies per 1,000 residents. By comparison, the Tampa Police Department had 930 officers to cover 125 square miles and 285,000 people, about 3.2 officers per 1,000 residents.

The sheriff's office adds between 20 and 25 deputies a year.

"We're just barely keeping up pace," DePolis said. "It's ridiculous to try to catch up to TPD _ that would take hundreds of deputies."

DePolis said the solution requires more than just putting additional deputies on the streets. Sheriff's officials can make immediate improvements in other areas.

"I don't think more manpower is the only solution," DePolis said. "We need more people, better procedures and to learn from our mistakes."

Officials began discussions last month to improve communications after Hayes was killed. Recommendations by dispatchers and supervisors led to immediate changes, and more are expected.

In the past, 911 operators answered calls with "Sheriff's 911. What is your emergency?" Last month, operators began to answer calls with "911. Do you need police, fire or ambulance?"

The change expedites calls to the appropriate agency and keeps victims from having to repeat their emergency to different operators.

In addition, a deputy now needs a supervisor's approval to change a priority assignment. Previously, it was at the deputy's discretion.

DePolis said officials are considering changing the way calls are prioritized and finding ways to encourage more communication between deputies and dispatchers.