Longboat emergency services leaders led a tour of the island for willing Sarasota Emergency Operations Bureau personnel.
Sarasota County's centralized emergency call center is still getting to know Longboat Key after taking over dispatch duties from the town in 2016. On Aug. 13, seven members of the Sarasota Emergency Operations Bureau took a day tour of the island with the goal of becoming better acquainted with its geography, landmarks and idiosyncrasies.
Fire Chief Paul Dezzi and Fire EMS Liaison and PIO Tina Adams led the group on a trek up and down the 10.2-mile island, driving from the fire department headquarters to the north end of the island, then to the south end, then back to the north fire department. Dezzi radioed between cars like a true tour guide.
Laura Rincon and Meghan Buckley, two telecommunicators in the Sarasota dispatch center, rode in Adams’ car and enumerated the issues a lack of familiarity with Longboat can cause in their position.
“Someone will call and say, ‘We’re on Gulf of Mexico Drive,’” Buckley said. “Well, where’s the nearest cross street? ‘We don’t know, it’s just one road.’”
It's those sorts of barriers to rapid communication the tour was intended to begin to eliminate.
The issue is not new or recent.
In a Town Commission meeting in May, Longbeach Village resident Michael Drake relayed a story in which an ambulance he called for a family member initially headed to the wrong address. He said his call was first received by a Manatee County call taker, then transferred to Sarasota County.
"It almost feels like you're being interrogated for a good 10 minutes on why you're calling,'' he told commissioners, asking the town to look into how to improve communications.
Emergency calls from all of Longboat, and most of the rest of Sarasota County, are routed to the Sarasota Emergency Operations and 911 Dispatch Center on Porter Road. From there, a telecommunicator gathers information on the type of emergency, location and more. Town police or fire units are then assigned to respond, backed up by responders from other jurisdictions if necessary. Countywide, call takers can handle as many as 650,000 calls a year, about 10% of which typically come from Longboat Key.
“You guys are a very tight-knit community,” Buckley said. “People get frustrated you don’t know exactly where they are right away.”
“There are things we have to ask [callers], whether we know it or not,” Rincon said, adding telecommunicators are sometimes able to pinpoint call coordinates, but they'll ask for verification, especially when a call comes from a cell phone. Because of the higher-than-normal percentage of landlines on the island, Buckley said, telecommunicators are able to pinpoint locations better than otherwise.
"A lot of times we’re reverifying what we already have,” Buckley said.
Just the mention of "tennis center'' sparked a familiar example and discussion. While Longboaters would likely be quick to identify the town's Public Tennis Center near Town Hall as an exact location, someone with less local knowledge could easily use the term to describe the Longboat Key Club's Tennis Gardens, Bayfront Park's two public courts or a host of other private locations.
Dezzi and Adams took care to point out specific locations of different tennis courts and suggested their guests ask callers which center, exactly, they're referring to.
In addition to the fire department tour, Deputy Police Chief Frank Rubino took the telecommunicators through the police department. Dezzi and Adams then brought their guests to Longbeach Village. They pointed to flooding as a persistent issue in the Village, and the Village as a consistent source of those kinds of calls.
Then the group traveled to the Longboat Pass Bridge in order to give personnel a look at Greer Island (which, the tour guides were quick to mention, is also known locally as Beer Can Island). Adams and Dezzi showed their guests the entrance to Greer Island from land, at which point Rincon and Buckley expounded on common themes when receiving calls from Longboat.
Buckley and Rincon said that dispatch center employees should ask for apartment numbers and specific buildings in resorts so that they don’t just respond to the main building. They’re impressed with how well-oriented people are with their surroundings on Longboat (when pressed). Longboaters are better-oriented than Sarasota callers, they said.
The trip continued toward the south end and Longboat Key Club. Tour guides highlighted landmarks such as the only gas station on the island, Harry’s Continental Kitchen, Joan Durante Park, the Centre Shops, the Lazy Lobster, Blue Dolphin Cafe and the home of a well-known person.
After Adams noted that the small blue and white signs indicated public beach accesses, Buckley said these access point markers are very useful. Beyond asking people what block they’re on if on the beach, Buckley said telecommunicators can pull up GPS coordinates of channel markers for boaters making calls.
The tour stopped to get out of the cars at Overlook Park, The Moorings and both fire stations for SEOB personnel to look around.
Adams said she doesn’t think this type of tour has been given in other locations near Sarasota housed in its dispatch center. “However, if the Sheriff’s Department called and asked Venice and North Port for a tour, I have no doubt they would accommodate them,” she added.
Longboat emergency services leaders hope this tour of the island becomes an annual event.