Fatal crash leaves questions about City emergency communications

Scene of Feb. 19 fatal collision in Ocala. [Photo by Jennifer Hunt Murty]

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Posted February 28, 2024 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

At 8:23:54 p.m. on Feb. 19, the Ocala Police Department indicates it received a call about a crash involving two vehicles–a car and an SUV–in the 1500 block of Southeast 36th Avenue. The accident blocked traffic throughout the night and the debris was still being cleaned from the road in the hour leading up to school starting at the nearby Ocala Christian Academy.

In a post to its Facebook account following the incident, OPD reported: “When OPD arrived, the car was fully engulfed in flames. OFR arrived and extinguished the flames within minutes. Sadly, two people from the car, a male and female, were declared deceased at the scene. The male was ejected from the vehicle. The SUV was driven by a juvenile (who) was taken to the hospital with serious injuries.”

OPD spokesperson Jeff Walczak answered email inquiry from the “Gazette” about the timing of the response. “The crash occurred right around 8:23, the reported time was 8:23:54 and officers were on-scene at 8:26:14. There were also off-duty officers in the area and on-scene right after the crash and prior to on-duty personnel arriving.”

Ocala Fire Rescue station is located a short distance from the scene of the accident. Their records reflect that their personnel arrived at the crash site at 8:30 p.m., or a little more than six minutes after the emergency call came in. It should be noted that sometimes emergency personnel are responding to multiple calls and therefore cannot always immediately shift their direction.

However, one contributing factor that may have slowed the OFR response is that the department wasn’t notified of the accident until 8:25 p.m., more than a minute after OPD took the 911 call. 911 calls in Ocala are routed through OPD and Ocala Fire Rescue’s dispatch works in the same room with OPD’s dispatchers.

The “Gazette” asked OPD why there was a lag in notifying OFR about the collision. Deputy Chief Lou Biondi told the “Gazette” the department was investigating the situation.

The “Gazette” has also requested from Marion County Fire Rescue what time it was notified of the call to send an ambulance.

The “Gazette” asked Biondi if there any analysis is regularly performed on the time it takes between a 911 call to OPD and the dispatch of OFR units. Biondi indicated that each department does its own analysis and that he was not aware of any joint agency effort to examine this question.

OPD is managed by Mayor Ben Marciano; Ocala City Manager Pete Lee oversees OFR.

Marciano responded to the “Gazette’s” inquiry promptly and said he was unaware of the lag in communications but he would look into what happened since that falls under his purview.

Walczak wrote the Gazette, “We are still going through everything and investigating the case, so the 911 calls and crash report is not available at this time. We will release information as soon as it’s available to do so.”

City attorney William Sexton also indicated by email that the OPD was within its rights not to explain the circumstances while the investigation is continuing.

On Feb. 20, OPD posted this on social media: “We are requesting the community’s assistance regarding last night’s deadly crash on SE 36th Ave. If you were in the area of the incident, around 8:20 p.m. and may have witnessed the event, or if you have any relevant home surveillance footage including Ring cameras, please come forward. We are seeking information from anyone who observed the vehicles involved, a white Mazda Miata and a gray Mercedes SUV, at any moment on SE 36th Ave.—especially if you noticed any instances of erratic driving.”

The post noted that “every piece of evidence or testimony can be crucial in piecing together the details of this incident, and we greatly appreciate your cooperation in this ongoing investigation.”

Anyone with information is asked to call OPD at (352) 369-7000 or Crime Stoppers at (352) 368-7867.

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