The Hernando County Sheriff's Office received a big push into the cellular age Friday when two companies donated 24 phones and hundreds of minutes of free air time.
The sheriff's neighborhood crime watch groups will use the 16 phones donated by Ericsson Inc. Deputies in the Community Oriented Policing Problem Solving Unit will get the eight phones donated by AT&T Wireless Services, which donated free air time for all the phones.
"The phones are a tool that makes for more efficient policing," said Maj. Richard Nugent, operations bureau commander. "We'll definitely put them to good use."
The phones designated for the crime watch groups will be programed to call 911 or the non-emergency Sheriff's Office number only. The department has not yet determined which groups will have access to the phones.
Cellular phones allow residents and watch groups to call in tips sooner, which cuts down on response time, said Mary-Helen Keen of AT&T Wireless Services. The cellular phones can help deter crime and catch criminals, she said.
"The more phones we put in residents' hands, the safer communities will be," she said. "These phones are a weapon against crime."
The donations are part of an effort by the wireless communications industry to support President Clinton's initiative to establish a corps of crime-fighting volunteers.
Keen presented the phones to Sheriff Thomas Mylander, several supervisors and a half-dozen patrol deputies Friday morning.
The eight phones designated for the deputies have an unlimited calling area. Each phone includes 200 or 500 minutes of free calling time each month.
The deputies will still use their regular dispatch radios for most calls. The phones will allow the deputies to call in from areas in the county where the radios have poor reception.
Deputies in the field can also use the phones to call other county departments like Code Enforcement or Animal Control for assistance, a savings of time and energy, the deputies said.
The cellular phones provide several other benefits as well.
Many residents do not want to call the dispatch center if they have a tip. They prefer to talk directly to a deputy with whom they're familiar _ deputies they have gotten to know from seeing them patrol their neighborhoods on a regular basis.
A deputy they trust, said Tom Brooks, who helps patrol south Brooksville.
"A resident who isn't comfortable calling dispatch if they have information can now call us directly," Brooks said. "That allows us to do our jobs better."
The phones also decrease a deputy's response time. Calls are taken directly by the deputy instead of being dispatched through an operator at the Sheriff's Office, which allows deputies to arrive at a scene sooner.
"Increased communication makes us more efficient," said Sgt. Cy Robinson, supervisor of the community policing unit. "The phones allow for that."