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New emergency communications center will free Fla. city from depending on the sheriff's office

TAVARES, Fla. The first call came in just after 10:30 a.m. Thursday. An elderly man at Florida Hospital Waterman phoned 911 saying he wanted better service from the hospital.

It wasn't exactly a serious situation, but it showed that Tavares' new emergency communications center was working smoothly.

"We're up and running and everything is going great," police Chief Stoney Lubins said Friday.

This week, Tavares launched its new 911 dispatching service. At least two dispatchers will be on duty at all times in City Hall handling calls for police service.

Calls for city firefighters and paramedics, however, will continue to be sent to Lake-Sumter Emergency Medical Services dispatchers.

Though the first emergency calls began trickling in Thursday as the city started switching areas of Tavares into the new system, Friday was the first full day the 911 system was completely operational.

Since 2000, Tavares' police calls have gone through the Lake County Sheriff's Office communications center, which also dispatches for several other cities, including Umatilla, Astatula, Mascotte, Fruitland Park and Howey-in-the-Hills.

But with 12,500-plus residents, Tavares was the only Lake city with more than 10,000 people that still used county dispatchers.

The system is needed to accommodate Tavares' fast-growing population and burgeoning number of emergency calls.

Last year, Tavares police officers handled about 25,440 calls, a 47 percent increase from 2003.

Lubins said Tavares was satisfied with the level of service it received from the county dispatching system, but using the city's own dispatchers will provide quicker response times for residents.

"The Sheriff's Office did a wonderful job, no doubt about it," Lubins said. "But you never get the same level of service than by using your own dispatchers. We can route calls faster and we have the local flavor and knowledge."

Using state-of-the-art equipment, the Tavares dispatchers sit in front of four screens. They can tell the location of every 911 call coming in -- including those made from most cell phones. Eventually, the system will be upgraded so that it will tell dispatchers each patrol car's exact location.

Tavares' 30 officers will have a computer screen in their patrol cars providing information about each call. Officers also will access a police database, giving them information about suspects.

In the past, Tavares police would have to access most of that information through the Sheriff's Office.

"This enables us to communicate with officers more quickly and efficiently," said Tavares Lt. David Myers, who oversees the new center and eight dispatchers.

The new communications center also will have a public window open at all times where people can walk up and talk to a dispatcher.

Security cameras soon will be installed throughout City Hall, so dispatchers can keep an eye on the building.

Tavares has paid the Sheriff's Office about $180,000 every budget year to handle its dispatching.

The new emergency communications center cost the city about $500,000 to start. The costs include purchasing equipment and paying for salaries and training for the new dispatchers.

The annual cost for operating the center will be about $350,000 to $400,000 a year, Lubins said. The starting salaries for dispatchers range from $26,250 to $30,500.

"Because this is the latest, most up-to-date, equipment, it makes everything so much easier," said Clarissa Reagor, a new Tavares dispatcher, as she handled several calls Friday. "This is a wonderful system."

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