Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Florida: 911 goes down; County covers up

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On June 14, 2012, the primary Columbia County communications tower was hit by lightening. After the strike, a complete shutdown of the 911 system occurred. 911 was down for about an hour. 911 callers found themselves unable to connect with the 911 operator. Based on information purportedly received from the County, the local newspaper headlined "911 service hampered." It wasn't hampered, it was down and out. It is not clear if they knew this was another Columbia County lie.

The radio communication system also went down.  A ring down system and interlocal agreement, which would have enabled a 911 caller to connect to another operations center, was apparently never implemented by the Sheriff, who claimed to be working on it in 2010.

Unknown to the public, the Sheriff had decided to put the 911 emergency backup center in a utility trailer, which was housed at the jail. After the system went down, the Sheriff couldn't' fire it up.

A Brief History

In October 2007, Columbia County received what is known as the Kimball report. This report, prepared by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, assessed the condition of the County's 911 call center. The report was a disaster for the County. It told the truth. It focused on the management of the County's emergency communications center. Shortly after receiving the report the County found a consultant that would prepare a report more toward the County's liking. Kimball was given the ax.

The severity of the issues identified in the Kimball report were significant. It pointed out deficiencies in critical areas of emergency communications management, such as: governance; leadership; morale; training and quality assurance; and the lack of a backup center.

In July 2010, Tom Maureau of the firm of Winbourne & Costas, Inc., said of the Kimball Report:

An ECC (Emergency Communications Center) is assigned life and mission critical operations. The lives of citizens and public safety personnel are dependent on effective and precise ECC operations. Therefore, a higher standard of care is required by public safety executive management to ensure an ECC operates as designed in an efficient and effective manner.

All of Winbourne & Costas' observations and recommendations concerning a true combined City-County ECC and backup center were ignored in the typical Columbia County legendary good ole boy, "Nobody tells us what to do" scenario.

Winbourne & Costas Consulting was hired by Lake City.

Forgetting the names on the doors, Columbia County Sheriff, Mark Hunter, is the man responsible for the emergency communications center and its backup center and has been for years. Over 80% of the calls for dispatch and emergency operations are calls for the Sheriff.

On May 6, 2010, during a County Commission meeting, Sheriff Hunter was asked what would happen if the 911 system went down. The Sheriff said that a plan was being worked on and that they have the ability to switch telephone calls to another county's dispatch system. The Sheriff added that FDLE can assist in getting communication back up if an emergency communications trailer is available.

On August 16, 2010, the City and the County entered into a Memorandum of Understanding whose purpose was, "The installation of technology equipment in the City of Lake City Public Safety Building [which would] create redundancy needed by Columbia County to benefit all agency communications." In plain English – backup. It was signed by Sheriff Mark Hunter, and the City and County managers.

Then, in and around September 2010, with communications between the County and the City hitting the skids, Sheriff Hunter secretly decided to renege on the August agreement with Lake City to house the emergency backup communications center in the Lake City Public Safety Building, a hardened building, which was designed to survive the most extreme adverse conditions.

On October 5, 2010, City Manager Wendell Johnson wrote a memo to the City Council and copied the County:

Unfortunately, the recent actions and statements of Columbia County officials and Sheriff Hunter make it clear that they are not seeking a collaborative effort with Lake City at this time ... The county’s current agenda essentially eliminates the “combined” feature of a CCC and the present approach gives Columbia County 100% control of 9-1-1 and public safety dispatching operations. (CM Johnson concluded his four page memo)  Lake City’s citizens may be at risk if we have no say-so in a life/death component of a critical operation. In conclusion, a combined communication center should be our goal…but, let’s do it right!

On October 7, 2010, your reporter was illegally removed, again, from a County Commission meeting by Sheriff's Deputy John Hatcher, after legendary Columbia County Commissioner, Ronald Williams, ran cover for the Sheriff to keep him from answering how the backup ECC was suddenly moved from the Lake City Public Safety Building to a utility trailer, which was to be housed somewhere on the County Jail property. This information was being kept from the public and Lake City and had been recently discovered by the Observer.

Grant money was used to buy computer and other equipment and software that was scheduled to go into the City Public Safety Building. That equipment ended up in what was to be Sheriff Mark Hunter's ill-fated Utility Trailer Emergency Communications Backup Center.

Lightning Strikes: It's Cover Up Time

On June 14, 2012, the ECC communications tower was struck by lightning. For approximately 1 hour Columbia County had no 911 service and no radio communications.

The county went into overtime to cover up the facts, as the hapless Harvey Campbell, the County's public information officer, reiterated the company line that everything was almost working fine.

One official told the Observer, "One could call into the ECC [dial 911] and no one would answer the phone.

One fireman told the Observer, "The problem I have is that the calls did not roll over to another County. It was just dead air."

The County's ring down line, the line that automatically reroutes emergency 911 calls if they can't get through, also went down, was just not working or was never set up.

Shortly after the lightning strike, somebody from ECC sent a road warrior to find the emergency backup center. The first place the person stopped was the City Public Safety Building. Then they purportedly went to the Sheriff's office. The County's backup utility trailer (ECC) was at the jail, both literally and figuratively stuck in the mud. As it turned out, it didn't make a difference, anyway.

Sheriff Hunter's emergency backup communications center – DOA

The County emergency backup center, which is housed in a utility trailer, was not ready for action. It is not known if it was ever tested.

Phone lines were not connected and it is not presently known if the trailer was hooked up to electricity.

One County official put it this way, "There is a lot to the B side [the emergency backup trailer]. There is a lot that has to happen. When you go to the B side, you have to download smart cop. You have to turn on the air conditioner. You have to do a lot of things. It is not automatic."

Sheriff Hunter's utility trailer backup communications center never made it online to prime time.

The County did get the call center back up only to have the radios go down again on Friday.

Lake City – Ready

Lake City contributes $177,154 to have the County Dispatch the LC Fire Department. The City never felt secure with the operation of the ECC and maintained its own police dispatch and an emergency backup center for fire.

As soon as Lake City discovered the call center went down, the City went into high gear. They fired up their backup ECC. Time to fire it up – 1 minute and 20 seconds.

The City put out the word for the County to monitor the City fire frequency.

Chief Gilmore spent time in the City dispatch center after the County went down the first time. The second time she was notified the City was not at risk.

A City fire official told the Observer, "We look out for the City. We are not happy with the trailer. We were sure we were ready in case it ever happened. And it happened. We were prepared. At no time was the City ever jeopardized."


The tragedy of the World Trade Center taught everyone a lesson. In times of emergency, radio backup and communications must work. 

The federal and state governments spent billions in grants making sure communications systems were up graded and ready for emergencies.  

Columbia County, in a scheme spearheaded by Sheriff Mark Hunter, diverted earmarked money and spent it on a utility trailer, in which was installed tens of thousands of dollars of backup technology. The Sheriff never explained how in a tornado or major hurricane, his utility trailer ECC made more sense than Lake City's hardened Public Safety Building.

The word is that the County is going to investigate this debacle, themselves.

The folks that gave Columbia County the grants for the communications systems that went down or wouldn't start should investigate. That way, some good might come out of this.

Columbia County Florida, the legend continues. 

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On June 19, 2012, WC from Columbia County wrote:

Columbia County for YEARS has been battling communications problems. The problem exists for one simple reason. Who's pocket will hold the most money when equipment is being purchased.

At one time when LCPD got laptops in their patrol cars... $60,000/m to operate? Really? This told to me by 4 people. Accurate, God I hope not.

1 location for a 911 center.... Anyone in technology knows the word REDUNDANCY. Sure take the "cheap" way out (and pocket the rest) by getting a trailer. It can be done. We in the ham radio community operate out of our cars in times of emergency with no problems. HOWEVER, we test our equipment daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.  Everything is in working order and TESTED FREQUENTLY.

What blows my mind is we have people that are in fact good at their day to day jobs running this county/city, but are completely CLUELESS on what keeps everything running. Our technology. This is now causing a serious life and death situations WAY too many times. If the peeps that run this county would give up the chance just once from filling their own pockets and agenda's, we could easily have the best communications system around for a FRACTION of the cost they have been and will continue to spend.

Columbia County is literally being RAPED because of the lack of technically minded people. I've been in tech for 35+ years. I know tech better than the ability to breathe. Makes me sick that I have to either be a "good ole boy" or "know someone" for someone to listen to reason. This is part of the reason I'm planning on moving out soon. Every time something like this happens, I feel my IQ drop about 20 points. Before long, I will be under 0.

The problems CAN be fixed. The problems are NOT as expensive as they make it out to be. These problems are ridiculous and should never exist. But these are the leaders of our county. They know best. (So says the blind man describing the colors of the rainbow).

Like the song says, "I  can't wait to get out of this place." And yes, that's sad to say.


On June 20, 2012, citizen49a from Columbia County wrote:

"The folks that gave Columbia County the grants for the communications systems that went down or wouldn't start should investigate. That way, some good might come out of this."

The ultimate result of past federal "investigations" into the practices at the NFBB, real estate deals associated with the LSHA, and a long laundry list of other misuses and misappropriation of federal funds shows how much interest there is likely to be in this. I believe these sorts of things continue because the people at the top are too busy doing the same thing to bother with the small fry they're supposed to be overseeing. Look at the transformation of law, finance, and banking over the last several years. There's an old saying that a fish rots from the head down. The United States has been remaking itself into a macrocosm of Columbia County for many years.

And for as long as the people continue to ignore it, it will continue. And it will get worse.


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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