October 1, 2022

Florida chiefs and sheriffs on the response to Hurricane Ian


PERF Members,

I know we’ve all been watching the terrible devastation in Florida from Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit this country, with winds up to 150 miles an hour. Severe flooding, storm surge, and high winds have devastated much of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Millions of people don’t have power and an unknown number have died.

I spoke by phone Friday with Punta Gorda Police Chief Pamela Davis, Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, and Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood to find out how they prepared for the storm and how their communities are faring. Natural disasters of this magnitude pose a unique challenge to law enforcement agencies. Preparation and planning are necessary well before a storm arrives, and response and rescue efforts can drag on long after the weather has cleared.

Punta Gorda Chief Pamela Davis

Chief Davis and a department of 40 sworn officers and 18 professional staff serve a community of more than 20,000 residents. She has led the agency since 2018.

Chuck Wexler: What preparations did you put in place ahead of the hurricane’s arrival?

Chief Davis: As soon as they say that there's a storm out and down to the south of us and that it could possibly hit the United States, we automatically assume it's going to go to Florida. We have a hurricane policy and an unusual occurrence policy that address this type of situation. We start having our officers and our professional staff review that so that they know to start getting ready. As the storm gets closer, that's when we put together an incident action plan. We use the ICS (Incident Command System) model where we could potentially be going to an Alpha/Bravo squad, which is a daytime 12-hour squad and a nighttime 12-hour squad. In this, you don't have days off. Basically we're just putting everybody on notice and giving directions on what everyone is to do if the storm hits. Prior to the storm, we also start putting out notices to our citizens. We tell them to have a hurricane plan in place, have supplies, and know where they will go if evacuating.

Wexler: When do you make scheduling decisions in these situations?

Chief Davis: As soon as we knew it may be coming our way, we told our staff to make sure their families had places to go, their homes were boarded up, and they had food supplies ready. They should have several uniforms ready and a bag ready to go in case they need to be deployed. We made the decision on Sunday that we would use an Alpha/Bravo squad starting Monday night. So the night shift knew they needed to get some rest, because they would be working the night of the storm.

We previously ordered a whole bunch of cots, so we set them up for our staff to sleep in the police department building. We needed to have all personnel here prior to the storm, because they may not have been able to make it in.

Then, as we monitored storm surge predictions, we decided we had to move from the police department to the water treatment facility, which is a little more elevated. We ended up getting lucky and not getting much of a storm surge.

Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office: We are constantly monitoring Hurricane Ian while we all wait it out at the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center

Wexler: Were you working to evacuate people?

Chief Davis: Yes, we wanted all our citizens to evacuate, and the county set up shelters. We put out a message that, first of all, people should try to go to another area of Florida or another state. If they had nowhere to go, they should go to a shelter. That’s the message we put out 3-4 days before the storm. We do everything we can to get people to evacuate. If they call us and say they don’t know where to go, we’ll provide some options.

Luckily we didn’t get much of a storm surge, or we could have had far more issues. We have some flooding in low-lying areas, but it’s generally cosmetic. And there’s some structural damage to mobile homes, leaking coming in walls, and trees on cars and roads. The water was out, but it’s back now. But we’re still without power.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add about responding to a crisis like this?

Chief Davis: You have to check on your staff. When we were getting ready to deploy our officers, we had a couple officers who were on the brink of breaking down because they hadn’t heard from their families. We realized they wouldn’t be effective if they were too worried about their families, so we sent them home to check on their families and make sure everything was good. They came back and were motivated, even though their homes were damaged, because they were able to get in contact with their families.

We have our own PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point), so we answer our own 9-1-1 calls. A lot of the cell towers went down, so the neighboring county’s calls were coming to us. Our call takers and dispatchers were extremely overwhelmed, hearing people saying things like “the walls are coming down” and “there’s water coming in.” They were crying, and they were thinking of their own families. So we offered to check in on their families. They gave us their addresses and we went to check in. You have to pay attention to your staff in these kinds of situations.


Clearwater Chief Dan Slaughter

In nearby Clearwater, a community of around 116,000 residents, Chief Dan Slaughter described similar stresses that severe weather can place on his team of 255 sworn officers and 115 professional staff. Chief Slaughter, who is PERF’s Vice President, has led the Clearwater Police Department since 2014.

Wexler: When did you start preparing for Hurricane Ian?

Chief Slaughter: Preparations for a hurricane don’t start when you get a weather report. They start in about February, before hurricane season even starts. We start communicating with staff about what to expect during a hurricane, how to prepare their homes, what they need to prepare for their families, and what to have when working an extended shift assignment during a storm. We collect personal information, evacuation plans for their families, and additional contact information.

When the storm hits, we use our vice narcotics personnel to create a Family Locator Unit. If we get a request to verify the safety of a family, we use those vice narcotic staff to do that, or they use the network of other agencies in the county and neighboring counties to find families and ensure they are taken care of. It keeps morale up as high as possible during some of the worst circumstances.

We started monitoring Hurricane Ian last Friday, and met continually over the weekend to monitor the storm’s track. When we started meeting regularly, we made sure our staff received at least one communication from us a day. Those were updates on what we were seeing, preparations we were making, and directions on the operational priorities for the next 24 hours. We tried to over-communicate with the staff as we ramped up for the storm. We encouraged them to take care of their own preparations in advance, because a 12-on/12-off type shift deployment could be needed.

Wexler: What was your message to the community?

Chief Slaughter: Our biggest risk areas are the barrier islands and some of the coastal areas on the west side of the city. We spent a lot of time communicating with hotels to make sure they’re taking proper precautions. We thought we might end up with a lot of tourists who have nowhere else to go. The hotels have good plans for relocating their patrons to other hotels in other areas of Florida to get them out of harm’s way.

With some of the residents, I think unfortunately their past experience can create a little bit of overconfidence so they want to ride it out. We’re lucky we didn’t get a direct hit, because many people didn’t follow the mandatory evacuations. That would have been a significant danger had the storm continued on its original track and directly hit Clearwater.

Clearwater Police Department: City crews work to remove part of a boat slip that broke away and ended up on the Bay Esplanade boat ramp

Wexler: When did you make scheduling decisions?

Chief Slaughter: We transitioned to a platoon schedule, with 12 hours on and 12 hours off, on Tuesday morning. It’s always a difficult decision, because we’re trying to find the sweet spot that gives people time to take care of their own homes. And if you actually get hit, there will be an extended deployment. I don’t want to burn people out for too many days before a storm hits, if I can avoid it.

Wexler: What was your schedule this week?

Chief Slaughter: I worked all through Monday night in the emergency operations center. I’ve pretty much worked 20-hour days since Monday.

Wexler: How do you take care of yourself when doing that?

Chief Slaughter: In law enforcement, sometimes it’s part of the job. I don’t push myself beyond what I can physically bear. And I have a really good command staff, so I lean on them. But I know my staff is under a lot of pressure, and I want to bear that burden with them. So I try to get face time with each one of them, learn about their concerns and issues, and be responsive to them.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Slaughter: As Chief Davis mentioned, communication staff are key. In previous events, we received many calls that weren’t police-related; people just wanted general information. We’ve done a much better job of directing those calls to a different information center. Our staff can burn out pretty quickly after interacting with a lot of people who are upset and take it out our staff. Over my tenure as chief, I’ve learned more and more that we need to focus on all our first responders, not just our sworn officers, because our communication staff are an important part of our operations as well.


Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood

Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood’s jurisdiction, home to more than 553,500 people, saw historic flooding this week. Sheriff Chitwood, who is also a member of PERF’s Board of Directors, has served as sheriff since 2017.

Wexler: How did the storm affect Volusia County?

Sheriff Chitwood: We had historic flooding. Some cities saw 10 inches of rain, and others got double that amount. Cities along the St. Johns River will probably see devastating flooding later this weekend. And we have three deaths attributed to the storm so far.

I have two high-water rescue vehicles, and we coordinate with the cities. We equip those high-water vehicles with medical personnel and police officers to respond to calls. And the National Guard sent us about five high-water rescue vehicles and 20 National Guard personnel to help with high-water rescues.

We still have people who refused to leave their homes because of their animals, particularly their horses, and they are living in waist-deep water.

We had great cooperation from our restaurants and our big-box stores, so we are well-stocked with items.

Our communication center was locked down. Staff there worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off, and they slept and showered in the building.

Wexler: During a storm, is a sheriff’s job different from a police chief’s?

Sheriff Chitwood: My job is to provide assistance to the cities. Daytona Beach does not have high-water rescue vehicles, and yet a significant portion of Daytona Beach, the Midtown section, the topography of it is like a bowl. Historically, they suffer massive flooding. This storm, they didn't have the resources, so my job was to get the resources to the police chief. As the sheriff, I have to distribute myself countywide to any city or unincorporated area. There's a lot of coordination that needs to be done at the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Chitwood surveying the damage by helicopter

We don’t know what the hurricane’s full impact will be, but it’s clear that early preparation has helped law enforcement agencies keep their communities safe despite this terrible storm. Here at PERF, our thoughts are with all those affected by Hurricane Ian.