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Urban sprawl outruns 911 calls

As New Tampa expands, emergency workers worry they are the last to learn the names of the new streets.

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


CROSS CREEK -- The call came in as a routine burglar alarm.

Sgt. Jack Ragsdale of the Tampa Police Department checked the address of the dispatched emergency. Whisper Point. Ragsdale was unfamiliar with the street, but the computer printout indicated that the location was inside Pebble Creek, a New Tampa development just outside the city limits. Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies normally patrol that area. But Ragsdale was nearby and had some time, so he offered to swing by.

What started out as a drive-by ended up as a search.

"I spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to locate that street," said Ragsdale, who took the call earlier this month. "I couldn't locate that street in that subdivision."

The dispatched call also included a phone number. Frustrated, Ragsdale dialed the home several times. Finally, two hours after the emergency call, a woman answered. It turned out the home was several miles away, in Arbor Greene.

"God forbid there was a real emergency, we wouldn't have found her," said Ragsdale. "It would have been impossible to find her had she not answered the phone."

As New Tampa continues to expand, emergency workers are worried they are the last to get the names of streets in new developments.

Throngs of new residents arrive each day, sometimes moving in before the roads get paved and properly labeled. Rural pasture is suddenly populated, but the information that directs police and firefighters sometimes trickles through the system.

"We are experiencing such rapid growth out there that from time to time we get called to a location that does not show up on the communication dispatch computer," said Joe Durkin, a spokesman for the Tampa Police Department. "From time to time, someone will call and it will not show up as an address."

Emergency response workers rely on two dispatch systems to lead them to trouble. When a resident calls 911, the number is matched with an address in a data base managed by GTE and administered by the county's emergency dispatch operator. The system automatically routes the address to the proper agency. City streets are patrolled by Tampa Police; the unincorporated parts of the county come under the sheriff's jurisdiction.

Nance Schapira, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Emergency Dispatch Operations, said her agency handles new county addresses directly. But when it comes to communities within the city limits -- where virtually all of New Tampa's growth is happening -- her agency must wait to receive those new addresses from the city.

"We are merely a pass-through," Schapira said.

Those addresses are processed by the city's business and community services department after developers submit plats of land that become subdivisions.

Tom Snelling, manager for the department's land development coordination, said his office can issue addresses after the developer decides on the number of lots assigned to each subdivision.

With so much new growth, the overload of new addresses sometimes leads to slight delays.

"I've been doing some catch-up on the addresses they have," Snelling said. "I sent over a couple hundred in the last couple weeks. We try to make sure they get the information as we get it.

"Any time you have a lot of growth, it's hard to stay current. Considering all the property that has been annexed -- Heritage Isles, other parcels -- New Tampa is a huge area. There is just a lot of land out there. You are running as fast as you can to keep up and keep things current."

Officials says such glitches are rare. Luckily the call in Arbor Greene turned out to be a false alarm, literally.

But the minor error also presented some confusion as to which agency should respond. The dispatched information indicated a location north of Cross Creek Boulevard in unincorporated Hillsborough. Ragsdale said sheriff's deputies called him to ask if he could check it out, as they did not have a deputy in the area. When Ragsdale finally found the location, it ended up being the city's territory.

"I don't know if it was the 911 system that had inadequate information, but that started the ball rolling in the wrong direction," Ragsdale said. "It is critical for that information to be put into the system as soon as possible, like when the electricity gets turned on. There should be some check and balance system."

Police and firefighters are not taking chances. Both groups periodically patrol the frontier areas of New Tampa, looking for new streets and developments.

Tampa Fire Rescue Station 20 on Bruce B. Downs Blvd. keeps its own data base of streets -- 361 pages alphabetized by street names with subdivision and simple directions next to each entry. Firefighters also spend every Friday studying their territory, which includes parts of unincorporated Hillsborough County. The county pays the city to cover its territory around Pebble Creek.

The fire station has provided copies of the data base to police officers patrolling New Tampa.

"It's a system that works well for us," said Captain Joe Gates, who oversees one of the three shifts that rotate every 24 hours. "The county can't keep up with (the growth). We can't keep up with it. We update it whenever we run across something new or occasionally we come across something that is incorrect."

Gates keeps a printout dispatch from April 14 as a reminder of the bureaucracy. On that date, an automatic alarm sounded on Highwoods Preserve Drive, an address formerly known as Richmond Parkway before it was renamed in November. The dispatched printout still listed the address as Richmond Parkway. "That happens," he said. "Developers change a name of the street, but it does not get to us right away."

But while Gates and his crew can make up for the delay, he worries that other companies called in to back them up will not know the area that stretches more than 22 square miles, the largest fire rescue territory in the city of Tampa.

"We've been able to find every address we've been dispatched to," Gates said. "The situation that concerns me is when this company is out of service and they have to send another engine company, they are at a real disadvantage. That can be a problem and it concerns me."

Ragsdale said new residents should check to make sure they are properly listed with the city's emergency response system before moving into their homes, just to be safe. The non-emergency number to call is (813) 273-0770.

He hopes the false alarm at Arbor Greene serves as a warning to residents. "It's only happened once, but that's all it takes," he said.

* * *

Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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