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Florida First Responders Improve Coordination Following Tornadoes

Nearly eight months ago, when killer tornadoes rampaged through Lake County, Fla., in the middle of the night, police and paramedics criss-crossed paths searching for victims.

As they hunted, some officers couldn't talk to one another, thwarted by a patchwork emergency communication system that failed more often than usual because the storm felled a radio and cell-phone tower.

"Unfortunately, practice makes perfect," Gary Kaiser, Lake's director of public safety, said Friday. "We learn from being tested."

The emergency response after Thursday night's tornado was smoother. For starters, search teams -- to avoid miscommunication, each consisted of a deputy sheriff, Eustis police officer and a paramedic -- were coordinated and matched.

Jerry Smith, Lake County's emergency-management director who coordinated rescue and relief efforts after the tornadoes in Lady Lake and Lake Mack, praised the response in Eustis. He called it "more honed."

"It's difficult to train for a tornado," Smith said. "The response has to be quicker because a tornado moves more suddenly."

Smith said Eustis benefited from a city mandate that requires police and other municipal employees to be certified in emergency response, a program coordinated by instructors from Lake/Sumter Emergency Medical Services and his office.

Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders summoned deputies to duty Thursday before the storm touched down, and more than 100 flooded immediately into Eustis, where they attended to residents and directed traffic.

The sheriff used jail crews with chain saws to help clear roads.

Everything went smoothly, Eustis police Chief Fred Cobb said.

"No egos were involved here," Cobb said. "We just worked together to help people who needed it."

He said his officers were more prepared because of their emergency-response training: "We were ahead of the game."

Thursday's tornado was smaller and less powerful than the Feb. 2 storms that killed 21 people in Lake County. Also, the Eustis twister arrived about 10:55 p.m., while more people were awake.

Smith said he thinks some Eustis residents were spared serious injury because they were wary of what happened in February and heeded weather-service warnings to take shelter.

He predicted that emergency response will continue to improve.

Smith pointed out that communication -- crucial in emergencies -- will almost certainly improve as a result of a unanimous vote Tuesday by Lake County commissioners.

The board approved one of the most expensive projects in county history, a $34 million overhaul of all emergency radios. The new system, which will be phased in during the next 14 months, will enable hundreds of county and city public-safety workers to communicate with one another.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5930.

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