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As Flagler’s Emergency Communications Briefly Falter, Palm Coast and Sheriff Assail County Over Long-Term Plans

| February 5, 2016

landon manfre 800 mhz system radio flagler

Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon, left, and Sheriff Jim Manfre, are at odds with County Manager Craig Coffey over when to modernize the county’s emergency communications infrastructure, a hugely expensive system the county pays for, but that all local governments, with the exception of the school board, depend on, especially cops, firefighters and public works and utility employees. (© FlaglerLive)

A coincidental power and emergency-communications failure took place Thursday afternoon during a heavy rainstorm even as county officials were meeting with the sheriff, the city managers of every city in the county, fire chiefs and a variety of other directors for the first time in more than two years to discuss critical elements of the county’s radio-communication infrastructure.

The meeting at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, which was not open to the public, had nothing to do with the storm—at least not Thursday’s storm. It was called at the behest of Emergency Management chief Kevin Guthrie—who’s leaving—to address Palm Coast’s and the sheriff’s mounting concerns over the county’s long-range plan to modernize the county’s radio-communication infrastructure, on which every local government agency depends (with the school board’s exception). Cops, firefighter-paramedics, public works, utility employees and others all use the so-called 800 Mhz system, bought by the county for $10 million in 2005 and nearing its end.

Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon and Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, both of whom were at the meeting, are concerned that the county is not moving fast enough to replace the system, which has an official end of life in 2017, though the vendor, Communications International, has pledged to Flagler to provide support until 2020, “more if parts available,” according to a county presentation on the matter. Thursday’s meeting participants saw the presentation, which was first developed in 2013. (See the full presentation below).

Separate interviews with several participants in Thursday’s meeting described it as cordial if punctuated with moments of tension and, at one point, disbelief, when County Manager Craig Coffey left the meeting to attend a previously scheduled staff meeting. (Coffey had told the executives that he’d be leaving at about 3:20 p.m. for the 3:30 meeting, though that staff meeting usually takes place at 9 a.m.) Coffey left just as the sheriff was taking a position about the county’s spending responsibilities. Until that point, the meeting had gone well, with a substantive exchange of ideas and positions. After Coffey left, Landon and Manfre spoke their displeasure, suggesting that Coffey could have delayed his other meeting for the more critical one he was attending. (Relations between Landon and Manfre on one side and Coffey on the other have not been warm for over a year.)

By then each side’s position had been made clear, however, with Coffey insisting that he would not have county coffers begin paying on a new communication system until the current system’s $1-million-a-year debt is paid off by 2020, as it would otherwise be too heavy a burden on taxpayers or the county budget—an issue neither the city nor the sheriff have to worry about, as it isn’t their budgets.

The county is fully responsible for that backbone infrastructure, with the sheriff and the cities paying for only such things as radios and other incidentals. Those are still considerable expenses (Bunnell’s costs alone would be $30,000) but not nearly as expensive as the $8 million to $20 million price tag of a new communications infrastructure, which may entail eight to nine communication towers, compared to five today.


A meeting exposes critical differences in how to modernize the county’s most important emergency communications system.
 


But the system is not nearly as good as it can and, in the sheriff’s long-standing perspective, ought to be. That’s one of the many points of common agreement between all participants at Thursday’s meeting. Firefighters and cops lose contact with each other and with the 911 dispatcher in critical situations, as when they enter big box stores, schools, or find themselves crawling in tight spaces. Sheriff’s officials find that unacceptable when it comes to officer safety, as do fire officials. But to upgrade the system to the much stronger standards in place in St. Johns, Duval and Clay counties, where responders would still be able to be in contact in 97 percent of situations, would cost $20 million.

For the county, that’s not the issue: all sides agree that ultimately the best system may be sought, though that’s a policy decision none of the participants at Thursday’s meeting get to make. They can only recommend it. The decision will be in the hands of the Flagler County Commission. Leading up to that, however, is input—input city officials and the sheriff say they have not been granted, though county officials dispute that.

Both sides have a point. Communication between all sides had been non-existent until 2013, under a former emergency management chief, but since 2013, when then-Undersheriff Rick Staly asked Guthrie to reopen lines of communications between agencies, a monthly meeting has been held between lower-ranked IT, fire and police officials. It just hasn’t carried the weight of executive-level meetings. Thursday’s meeting was the first such, intended to be a quarterly meeting of executives, thus leaving no room for misinterpretation.

No decisions were made Thursday, and though all sides agreed about the goal—a new communications system—differences were sharpened over how to get there, with Landon intimating at one point that Palm Coast might go it alone if the county were to not budge from its decision not to move to a new system until 2020. That may be posturing: it would be prohibitively expensive for the city to go it alone. It’s the reason it gave up its lone tower in 2003 to hop onto the county system. It was more cost-effective and logical, and taxpayers are loath to see services duplicated. But Landon’s stance also underscores his and the sheriff’s nervousness about the county’s unwillingness to put the system out for bid rather than stick with its current provider, and their unease in depending on the county’s infrastructure past 2017, without the provider guaranteeing that the system will be serviced properly.

Recent failures, though unrelated to that infrastructure—but directly related to county management of information technology—buttress the city manager’s and the sheriff’s point. And flickering failures such as Thursday’s power issues could only feed into the perception of a county infrastructure lacking absolute reliability.

It wasn’t long after Coffey left the meeting Thursday when the lights flickered at the Emergency Operations Center, and kept flickering (“a sign from God,” as one of the participants would ruefully put it).

Craig Coffey. (© FlaglerLive)

Craig Coffey. (© FlaglerLive)

As officials would soon find out, the emergency communication system enabling the 911 dispatch center to talk to cops and firefighters on their radios failed at 4:28 p.m. and was off line for about 15 minutes. Firefighters and officers in the field also could not speak with each other on their radios, though they could still communicate through their computer systems. That system, too, had had issues for the past couple of days, and the sheriff’s email system had failed for a few hours. (The 911 system was never affected: residents could still call in their emergencies, but 911 dispatchers briefly had trouble communicating emergencies to responders.)

The problems looked like echoes of the much larger county-operated system failure that crippled the sheriff’s computer operations in October and November. But it was just that: an echo, provoked by a different set of issues that were addressed relatively quickly. The computer-assisted dispatching system, which had failed for days last fall, was fully operational by Thursday evening again after older switches were replaced, a county spokeswoman said.

The radio system went down because of corrosion and problematic terminal fittings on a back-up generator at the old sheriff’s operations center, which powers the most critical of the county’s five communication towers. The heavy rain storm caused the initial power failure, which should have kicked in the back-up generator. It did. But only for a minute. When power returned, then failed again, the generator did not kick in, draining the back-up batteries that operate the tower after 31 minutes. Once the batteries were drained, the system went down.

“We’ve struggled with our system failing from a computer standpoint today as well as our radio system,” a sheriff’s spokesman said in early evening. A unified command was established as in a crisis, at the 911 center, with all agencies working together—just in case. It proved unnecessary.

For several hours Thursday afternoon and evening, cops had to communicate not on their usual digital and encrypted communication channels, but on analog channels used by firefighters. They had to wait until the system re-synchronized itself before resuming operations as normal. The generator was replaced Friday morning, when all systems were functioning normally.

The same can’t quite be said about relations between three of the county’s four largest government agencies (the school board was not at the table), as the sheriff said he would take his case directly to county commissioners.

Being the only elected official there, that move may anticipate the next step in the process, which may—as in several recent regards where county and Palm Coast have clashed—require the intervention of the county commission and the city council.

Both council and commission have been poorly or not at all educated on the issue. The council, despite its numerous workshops, has never been schooled on the issue, let alone invited Guthrie or other county officials to make their presentation and their case directly to them. And three of its five members will be gone by November. The county commission last heard such a presentation in November 2013, when the issue lacked urgency. The year ahead’s distracting and disruptive election season will be no help, again largely shifting what amounts to policy decisions into the hands of unelected executives whose ability to communicate sometimes mirrors the vagaries of the 800 Mhz system. Left in the lurch are the system’s users, the county’s most critical first responders: cops, firefighters, public works employees.

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18 Responses for “As Flagler’s Emergency Communications Briefly Falter, Palm Coast and Sheriff Assail County Over Long-Term Plans”

  1. DeeDeeDee says:

    You ask county management and the problem is Landon and the Sheriff. You ask Landon or the sheriff and the problem is Coffey. You ask the mad hatter and he thinks they are all having happy unbirthdays.

    The point is that this response makes a thousand times more sense than retaining a county manager who cannot build relationships and who in fact dismantles them.

    I believe things got bad from the sound of it after Coffey left because these two felt as if at that point they could be sensible with the emergency management director. I’m sure they took plenty of cheap shots while Coffey was away, but who could blame them? I believe he has been on the just b the longest and appears to be the most untouchable.

    The next time someone sees a commissioner could you do us all a favor and knock on their noggin a couple times? Make sure they are home and haven’t gone on vacation because anyone who would keep an administrator who can’t even build civil relationships with other community leaders is not in their right mind. What’s worse is that they don’t even question the leadership let alone take action. We must be the laughing stock of Florida

  2. Anonymous says:

    “……this response makes a thousand times more sense than retaining a county manager who cannot build relationships and who in fact dismantles them”.

    Same can be said for the Sheriff.

  3. Denise Calderwood says:

    This is a serious issue that needs to be discussed and addressed by the commission and the various city councils, earlier rather than later. Is the reason they weren’t invited because then it would have to be an open meeting that the public can attend? After all we the citizens know these types of BIG, costly decisions are happening and we only find out about them after the vote.

  4. confidential says:

    Which cheap shots? Just justified complaints!
    It’s time FCBOCC boot the administrator Coffey for leaving a very important meeting with our law enforcement and the manager of the largest city that is actually the 800 lb gorilla tax revenue base for the county? The is shameful in this county government they insult, witch hunt and disrespect our constitutional officials and their own department heads and also unceremoniously walk out of a meeting that addresses the county debacle of the emergency system communications? They need all six to be booted if Coffey is not out! Maybe Coffy did it because was Mr. Gutrie who organized this meeting..?

  5. Oldseadog says:

    DeeDeeDee says:

    …” The next time someone sees a commissioner could you do us all a favor and knock on their noggin a couple times? Make sure they are home and haven’t gone on vacation …”

    I hear that all the Commissioners have a nametag saying:

    PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB:
    DO NOT KNOCK BECAUSE WORKING INSIDE

    Hmmmmmmmn——————eh! LOL

  6. Instigator says:

    http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Where-to-go-During-a-Total-Communications-Shutdown.html

    good read…

    and our exemplary emergency management chief is allowed to leave town for a measly 8 grand. Only 2 years here but I can see we have some serious safety issues. I have never seen folks fight like this when we are all supposed to be pulling in the same direction. We can not allow our police and fire to lack communications when they are in dire need while protecting us. It is simply unacceptable.

  7. John Ryff says:

    Oh you mean like there have been two police helicopters fling around our house for more than two hours and after about 20 minutes we went out and were able to see police cars all up and down our block so we log into Flagler Live’s website at 8:20 p.m. and read that at 7:14 p.m. a RED ALERT was put out to the houses in the area where the police are attempting to catch two escaped convicts that wrecked their car in a chase and we still hadn’t received the RED ALERT call more than an hour after it was supposedly sent out?

    The article said the alert may take several minutes to get out to all the homes and it’s now 9:53 p.m., choppers still circling, cops everywhere and no call yet.

    The point is FIX THE DAMN THING you were elected to PROTECT AND SERVE no matter what you position is, somebody take some damn leadership here and knock some heads around!

  8. Sunsetter says:

    WOW!! Are these county commissioners brain dead? What’s more important than our safety-Craig Coffey should be immediately fired! Money has been spent on other non emergencies without any logic such as:

    1. Bailing out Plantation Bay water issues
    2. Giving Dunn, Hadeed and Coffey raises
    3. Raising Kaiti Lenhart 2015/2016 budget by more than $100k and not replacing voting equipment used to count votes (which SOE Weeks asked for since 2010).
    4. Meeker asking for forensic audit a year after SOE leaves office
    5. Spending nearly $100k on an Auditor General Audit for Gail Wadsworth, but then not doing a follow up or taking action on the 10 findings found and mismanagement of 5.5 million dollars
    6. Leaving old Courthouse vacant for 7 or 8 years spending like $10k a month to maintain it
    7. Purchase $400k old hospital for $1.2 million from associates
    8. Pour more than a million dollars into Bings Landing and Dead Lake Fish Camp and basically rent for free
    9. Spartan events
    10. The list goes on and on and on….

    Maybe if Revels, Hanns and Ericksen are replied in 2016 the newly elected commissioners will represent us, and make safety a priority. Coffey needs to find a new job on another planet. It’s about time commissioners stop Coffey from destroying this county by leading us down the road to disaster.

  9. confidential says:

    Can you all please direct all your complains to the responsible top banana in the county and the BOCC that allow automatic contract renewals and increases for him? He is always blaming the sheriff and the the city of PC…other constitutional elected officials and their own department heads for his political manipulations and failures, tell those five his bosses that the communications disruption is sufficient reason to fire him! Happened more than once and the dude walks out of a meeting with the affected government agencies with total disrespect? Time to boot Coffey.

  10. Tired of it says:

    It isn’t at all surprising that the radio system will need to be ungraded. The planned obsolescence by the radio provider is typical of today’s big companies. For many years the radio system used in almost all emergency communications was a simple Motorola system. The new so called improved digital systems which work by computer based infrastructure are in constant need of upgrades and of course when they can’t be upgraded anymore everything has to be replaced. It is and always will be a monetary drain on our tax base. That being said, the County has been well aware of the end date of the current system and should have allocated annual funding to allow us to have the needed $$ available now and not all of a sudden have it be a financial catastrophe. Poor planning on the County’s part, but not surprising.

  11. tulip says:

    Both city and county managers have the kind of temperments won’t allow their brains to LISTEN and HEAR and CONSIDER each others point of view. Egos and control issues prevent them from being SMART problem solvers by objectively looking at a situation and solving the problem. Instead, they antagonize each other and cause nothing but frustration, don’t solve anything and create bitterness and tension between city and county. The important thing is that, when issues and problems arise, the managers should not care about WHO gets the “upper hand”, but should be concerned that the situation be fixed in a sensible and timely matter. Nope, we get two managers, a BOCC and Palm Coast council that are at odds with each other. Sounds like the Federal govt to me.

    One or both managers needs to be replaced. However, only the commissioners or city council can vote to replace them and that is not going to happen because it’s too much “work and effort” to seek out and totally qualify another person to hire. For sure, neither manager is going to look elsewhere for a job, as these two are way over paid when benefits are added to the salary package and might not find a city or county that would pay them what they wanted. They both got it good here.

    The people don’t vote to elect a county or city Manager and rightly so, as that type of job requires an enormous amount of knowledge and responsibility and capability. When a manager’s job is available, applicants from all over the country apply for the position, so a lot of background checks and performance inquiries need to be done and then the commissioners pick possible choices, interview each one regarding many issues and salary, etc..I don’t think a regular voter would have the capability of doing all that research, vetting, etc.

    Coffey is supposed to be working FOR the commissioners and carrying out their directives… However, this BOCC ALLOWS Coffey to rule them, and mostly get whatever he wants. There must be a reason for that, as none of the commissioners have ever proposed changing managers when the contract is up or, if someone days, he or she is voted down on the subject.

    So, folks, we are stuck with what we have until things change. All in all though, I do like this area and I’m sure there are much worse places to live.

  12. confidential says:

    Also a million a year since 2005 cost us this failing system? Did they get 3 bids at least or was all up to Coffey? You tell me that surrounding larger counties like Volusia with 5 times the amount of residents we have here to pay for it has a 25 million system…makes no sense that such a much smaller county like Flagler spends 40 percent of that cost in ours. No wonder all these secrecy kept from the very taxpayers to foot their bills when they hold meetings to discuss how to spend our monies. They believe after they collect our ever increasing taxes they do not have to account for those funds or how they waste them anymore?

  13. confidential says:

    Sunsetter you are so right in all that shameful list of how our hard earned taxes are wasted by FCBOCC.
    Yes what was the end story of the over 5.5 millions waste by Gail W? Were did the $$ go…why the audit became a shadowy vanishing issue?

    Coffey talks of need to raise our taxes to pay for new communications system…? While proposing to help the hospital by clearing a piece of their land given to us and spend further money on two buildings there? Just take the Free Health Clinic to all the wasted space on the lavish oversize offices of the Taj Mahal…were empty space is costing us what we can’t afford to maintain.

  14. MakesYouWonder says:

    Like Sunsetter stated it’s comical (not in a funny way) how this Administration can “find” the funds when needed. When s hits the fan they turn over their mattress and find $ for raises to retain employees, computer crashes, failing utility plants, etc. Here’s a concept; learn how to manage these things more appropriately and stop waiting until there is a catastrophic event and then forced to spend the big $$$! That’s why they get paid the big bucks, no? Let’s put this in perspective, these City and County “leaders” make close or the same amount as some state governors, yet we hold them to lessor expectations. Does that make sense to anyone else? It’s time for new blood, new ideas in the area and you can’t get that letting stagnate leadership continue to rule local government. If the respective commission and council won’t do anything about it vote them out. Otherwise quit belly aching and accept the substandard leadership we currently have.

  15. ThePledge says:

    Sounds like we have a consensus. I propose an informal pledge for all participants in these forums.

    As long as Landon and Coffey remain in their posts, we pledge to vote out every incumbent regardless of party affiliation for both Palm Coast city council and Flagler county commission. Simple fix in my opinion. I also hope we will all do everything in our power to communicate this to our friends and family. Anyone you know who intends to vote should be encouraged to vote out every incumbent.

    It’s obvious the commissioners have no intention of changing management as they are comfortable sitting in their little thrones having little affect on anything while collecting a taxpayer paycheck. out with the old and in with the new for 2016!

  16. OldSeaDog says:

    Where do we sign the pledge……………….!

  17. J.Seinfeld says:

    SO, Did they pick the system and make a decision? Oh that’s right it was a meeting about nothing…….I think I should write a TV show script about this. I bet nobody else thought of it, yet! ..J.Seinfeld

    Stop with the ego’s, consider the people and public safety first. Do your JOB!

  18. Anonymous says:

    We need NEW administrators in the County and palm coast. both are overpaid and unable or unwilling to get past the past and work together. We also need to vote in people who will get us new people who will work together for the residents of the County as a whole. the commissioners and administrators hide behind each other and say its the other guys fault.

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