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Columbia County 911 Communications Broken: Where are the elected public officials?

Tonight, Columbia County's Commissioners may answer

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Columbia County's 911 communications has been broken for decades and has become the poster child for what can go wrong at every level of a dispatch center. The County Commission took over the total operation of 911 communications in 2008. Political maneuvering, a lack of supervision, revolving door communications center directors, broken equipment, dueling dispatches, wrong addresses, and an emergency backup center housed in a utility trailer at the County jail, plugged into nothing and inoperable, are just some of the conditions that have been the hallmark of County controlled 911 communications in recent times.

A Little History

In 2008 the County Commission decided to takeover County police and fire dispatch responsibility from the control of the Sheriff and made the County responsible. Concurrently, in September 2008, County Manager Dale Williams began drawing up an interlocal agreement between the County and Lake City. By June 29, 2009, after nine months of meetings, negotiations and rewrites the new Sheriff, Mark Hunter was the last man to execute the agreement which had been already executed by Commissioner Stephen Bailey for Columbia County and Mayor Steve Witt for Lake City. Each would be an equal partner in the operation of a combined communications center which was to enhance public safety and save the public money by combining resources.

Commissioner Stephen Bailey, whose passion for public safety is well known, gave up an opportunity for leadership after the agreement was signed. Sheriff Mark Hunter became the point man for the County and Lake City's new City Manager, Wendell Johnson, took the lead for Lake City.

Seventeen months later on December 1, 2010, there were still major issues at the 911 Combined Communications Center (911-CCC). Mayor Witt outlined those issues to the County Commission this way:

The purpose of this letter is to inform the County Commission that the City has completed its "due diligence" for continuing participation in the Combined Communications Center (CCC) initiative. As the City Council previously communicated, we believe that a collaborative, well organized and cooperatively operated CCC will benefit all citizens of Columbia County and Lake City. However, at this time, it is our position that both the spirit of cooperation and other critical elements essential to success for all parties are not in place.

A month later in January 2011, the Executive Committee established by the Interlocal Agreement met for its first and only time. Mayor Witt nominated Sheriff Hunter to chair the committee. It was the last meeting of the combined 911-Combined Communications Committee.

Four months later on April 11, 2011, Mayor Witt again wrote to the County regarding the 911-CCC. The now legendary Jody DuPree was the County Commission Chair:

The position of the BOCC indicates that [neither] the Sheriff, [nor] a privatized EMS provider, nor the City will not have any "stakeholder rights" regarding the technical, operational, funding, or governance perspectives of the center. Fundamentally, the present scenario is not reflective of a "multi-agency" Communications Center at all.


The reassignment of the first 911-CCC Director and the resignation of the two succeeding directors, the last one after only a week on the job, clearly should have been a wakeup call to the County Commission. It wasn't.

Pointing Fingers

During a series of emails between Lake City Fire Chief Frank Armijo, City Manager Wendell Johnson, and others regarding the failure of various reporting systems at the 911-CCC, City Manager Johnson stated:

I waited to see if anyone in the group was going to ask for an investigation into the events that led up to this critical error/failure. However, they were more interested in pointing fingers instead of finding out what, why, and how this happened. That email is here.

Other Problems

For the past year there have been numerous problems reported at the 911-CCC. There have been radio failures; delays; units sent to the wrong address; Lake City Fire not being paged; CAD images unreadable; multiple failures regarding dispatches to gas leaks; static making radio communication at times impossible; and failures to conduct daily pager tests and other things which threaten the safety and well being of Columbia County's residents and visitors.


The problems of the 911-CCC have been well documented and kept from the public by everybody, but especially Columbia County and the County Commission. Those are the folks in the County who are ultimately responsible and control what goes on at the 911 Center.

Lake City, City Manager Wendell Johnson has claimed in a correspondence to the County, dated March 19, 2013, that the Mayor and the City Council have agreed to pull its fire dispatch out of the Combined Communications Center. (The correspondence is part of the correspondence that has been supplied to the County Commission. It is here.)

There is nothing in any official record of Lake City dating back to the middle of 2012 that indicates the conversation between the City Manager and the City Council ever took place in public.

The fate of the Combined Communications Center is still in the hands of Columbia County's and Lake City's elected public officials.

Everyone in the know believes that a Combined Communications Center is in the best interest of all the citizens of Columbia County.

The issue is on the agenda for tonight's County Commission meeting. It has yet to come before the City Council.

Tonight, at the County Commission could be a precursor of open government, or it may just be good ole boy backroom business as usual.

We will know tomorrow.

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