By Tim O’Meilia

Conflicting locations given by scores of 911 callers to emergency dispatchers sent rescuers to the wrong location, at first, of what became the accidental drowning of a Georgia couple in a strong rip current behind a South Palm Beach condominium on May 15.

Lantana police dispatchers, who handle South Palm Beach emergency calls, were told people were struggling in the water anywhere from the Lantana public beach to just south of the Lake Worth pier.

Despite the confusion, police arrived three minutes and fire-rescue trucks five minutes after being dispatched.

“From what I can see, the response time for us, Lantana and fire rescue were good,” said South Palm Beach Police Chief Roger Crane.

As a result of the confusion, though, town officials are considering affixing the addresses of each condominium in 12-inch vinyl numbers on the concrete cap of seawalls or on the beach stairs behind each condo so emergency callers and swimmers can identify their location.

The first emergency call, from a woman on a cell phone, was answered by Manalapan dispatch and then re-routed to Lantana. 911 calls from cell phones, unlike from land lines, do not pinpoint the location of the caller, so dispatchers must ask. They were told “on the beach.”

A South Palm Beach patrol car was dispatched at 9:32 a.m., according to Lantana dispatch records, and first stopped at the Dune Deck, near the Lantana beach, before being re-routed to the Mayfair House at 3590 S. Ocean Blvd., where the drowning actually occurred.

Despite the delay, the police arrived at 9:35 a.m. and parked at the neighboring Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn for easier access to the beach. Police at first brought water rescue equipment to the beach, then returned for oxygen and a defibrillator after they found that a man and a Lantana lifeguard where already administering CPR.

In addition, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a boat collision with three people in the water. That erroneous report might have been prompted by an explosion in an FPL transformer just minutes before the drownings.

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue dispatched a rescue truck and an engine at 9:39 a.m. to a vague location “between Ocean Avenue and Lake Worth Road.” That was later changed to 3700 S. Ocean Blvd., also an incorrect address, according to a fire-rescue report of the incident.

Fire-rescue arrived at the Mayfair at 9:44 a.m. and took over rescue operations. Although South Palm Beach condos have private, unguarded beaches, lifeguards from the Lantana public beach sprinted a quarter mile up the beach to give assistance.

“It’s amazing they actually got where they were supposed to go,” South Palm Beach Mayor Martin Millar said. “There was so much confusion about the location.”

Eventually, numerous units from South Palm Beach, Lantana, the Sheriff’s Office, fire-rescue and the town of Palm Beach responded to the calls.

The South Palm Beach Town Council discussed the drownings during its May 25 meeting and asked Town Manager Rex Taylor to discuss with Palm Beach County and Lantana the use of signs advising that the beaches are unguarded and larger warning flags that could be seen north of the public beach.

In other action, the council:
* approved, by a 3-2 vote, moving the mayor and council comments from early in the agenda to just before the closing comments from the public and limiting the mayor and council to five minutes, unless the council approves more time. Millar said the time limit was an infringement on freedom of speech. The council approved more time for both Millar and Councilman Brian Merbler, who also opposed the change.
* abolished unanimously the Board of Adjustment and transferred its only power, to grant zoning variances, to the Planning Board. The Board of Adjustment seldom met. .

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