Lake emergency plan bothers sheriff’s office

Daily Commercial Staff Writer
Email this story to a friend

TAVARES A hurricane sweeps through Lake County. Flooding rips through neighborhoods, trapping hundreds of residents and shutting down power. A terrorist’s attacks destroys a community. Who’s in charge?

The answer to that question may be obvious to the sheriff’s office which has coordinated nearly all of the county’s major emergencies for more than a decade and has the resources — such as helicopters, generators and more than 600 employees — to contain the havoc.

However, the Lake County Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan that outlines operations in a declared emergency put the county’s emergency manager in charge — at least initially.

While the emergency manager has rarely supervised recovery efforts in actual emergencies in the county in the past, the plan put the sheriff’s office beneath the county’s emergency management director in the chain of command, sheriff’s officials said.

The Florida Division of Emer-gency Management approved the plan and returned it to the county last month. The county commission was given 60 days to enact the plan or risk losing chances to get federal grant money.

It was at that point that Sheriff George Knupp objected to the plan, saying it would shift decision-making authority to a local agency that has comparatively little experience and lacks the vast resources to handle an emergency.

“It appeared to us that the sheriff and his organization were answering to Emergency Management,” said sheriff’s Major Claude Gnann.

Officials were able to resolve differences Friday morning by changing wording in the plan to establish the sheriff’s as an “autonomous agency” in emergencies, a change that has existed in practice but not in writing, Gnann said.

Knupp was unavailable for comment Friday.

The sheriff’s office lists stockpiles of electric generators, water pumps, planes, helicopters, HumVees and MRIs.

“We can literally feed a small army if we had to,” said sheriff’s Lt. Nick Pallitto.

Knupp has said that the operation of his agency in emergencies needs to reflect the way it operates on a daily basis.

“The sheriff is his own entity. He’s not an entity of the county,” Gnann said. “The sheriff is responsible to the citizens. That’s our legal arguement.”

Sheriff’s officials said they have gone along with county plans in the past to avoid controversy, but said some wording in this plan, which has to get re-enacted every four years, had gone too far.

“We had vehemently objected to it,” Gnann said.

County officials said initially that state statute specified the chain of command.

“It’s a matter of viewpoint. We interpret the same thing differently,” County Manager Bill Neron on Thursday afternoon. “I’m doing everything I can to walk the fine line. I’m trying to be a peacemaker.”

However, Gnann said police departments fall into different as sheriff’s office which do not have elected chief officers.

At one point in the negotiations, the county’s Public Safety Department, which wrote the plan last year, had considered several alternatives to fulfill the state’s requirements to include law enforcement by asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take that role.

The state on Thursday granted the county a 90-day extension to get the plan approved by the commission and remain eligible for the grant money.

Neron said he expects to present the modified plan to the county commission later this month.

Gnann said the revised plan will allow the sheriff’s office to operate in emergencies without having to deal with the sluggish bureaucratic processes local emergency management departments must use. For example, the sheriff’s office does not have to petition the state to get deputies from other counties to help. Sheriff’s offices have agreements that allow the exchange of staff to help in emergencies.