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Police, fire agencies shutting down most responses as weather deteriorates

 
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced that most agencies were stopping responses to all but the most serious calls as the weather deteriorated.k KATHRYN VARN / Times
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced that most agencies were stopping responses to all but the most serious calls as the weather deteriorated.k KATHRYN VARN / Times
Published Sept. 11, 2017

With stronger winds from Hurricane Irma came suspension of police and fire services, meaning in most cases firefighters and police officers won't be available to assist residents.

St. Petersburg was the first to pull police officers and firefighters off the road about 6:30 p.m., followed by Clearwater, Pinellas Park and Largo soon after.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office also pulled deputies off the road about 7:45 p.m. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the decision was made due to reports of winds reaching 45 mph and deteriorating conditions in the southern portion of the county.

For fire and EMS calls going into the county's 911 center, automatic dispatch ceased Sunday night, meaning residents may not get an immediate response if they call 911, said Jim Fogarty, director of safety and emergency services. The authority is now in the hands of local fire departments to decide whether to send personnel to a call.

"They've got a lot of experience, they know what they're doing, and they're not making these decisions lightly," he said.

The moves were expected to happen sometime in the hours before Irma hits, as public safety officials have said for days they will not put first responders at risk out when conditions become unsafe.

The Sheriff's Office still has two armored vehicles stationed in the northern and southern parts of the county to handle big emergencies, such as shootings or serious problems at shelters.

"Under serious circumstances, we will send somebody," Gualtieri said. "We'll be handling it on a case-by-case basis."

In the hours leading up to Irma, deputies had been responding to routine calls. Gualtieri suspects some were brought on by stress related to the storm, such as domestic violence and mental health-related incidents.

In Clearwater, there were at least two major wrecks, including a car that overturned on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, spokesman Rob Shaw said.

Irma has weakened since it made landfall on Marco Island south of Naples. That had Gualtieri optimistic the damage and safety assessments after the storm wouldn't take as long as originally expected. The process requires entrances to the county to be sealed off through the duration.

But he emphasized the storm will still be powerful, packing winds of 80 to 90 mph with gusts up to 100 mph, he said.

"There's no question," he said. "It's still a significant storm."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.