FL:System glitch spurs wake-up calls in the night

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System glitch spurs wake-up calls in the night By Kevin Krause Staff Writer

July 7, 2001

Laura Turner and her husband get annoying calls from telemarketers almost every day, but they were not expecting a call from Sheriff Ed Bieluch at 1:02 a.m. on Friday.

"We were livid," said Turner, of West Boca. "My husband and I couldn't get back to sleep. We thought someone died."

The Turners were among dozens of residents in unincorporated Boca Raton who were awakened late Thursday night and early Friday morning by a pre-recorded message from the sheriff.

Sheriff's Office officials said Friday that a glitch in their automated phone system was to blame and that calls aren't supposed to be placed after 9 p.m.

On Friday morning, they started getting calls from angry residents.

"We apologized to everyone who called," Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Diane Carhart said. "It has been terminated until it can be fixed. We'll make sure it never happens again."

The calls are part of Bieluch's Safe Roads Initiative that kicked off on Monday and uses motorcycle deputies and patrol cars to enforce traffic laws at dangerous stretches of road across the county.

Using an automated phone system, the Sheriff's Office has been sending the calls -- 3,000 per hour -- to residents within a three-mile radius of enforcement areas. The calls were supposed to be made between 5 and 9 p.m., when most people are home.

On Thursday night, a problem with the system resulted in calls being sent as late as 1:20 a.m. to residents surrounding the enforcement area at Glades Road and U.S. 441.

Lt. Pat Lynch, the administrator of the automated system, said he underestimated how long it takes to place each call. When you're calling up to 15,000 people at once, the time can be effected by whether people pick up on the first or fourth ring, he said.

"As an agency, we need to realize the limitations of the system," Lynch said. "A lot of it is a learning curve."

The system was supposed to shut off automatically by 9 p.m. regardless of how many people were contacted. It's unclear when the Sheriff's Office will resume using the system, he said.

The pre-recorded message, under a minute long, features Bieluch's voice talking about his initiative and warning people to buckle seat belts and slow down.

"You live near one of the county's most dangerous intersections," Bieluch tells them. "To be forewarned is to be forearmed."

The $60,000 automated system was purchased in 1999. Although little-used until now, it was designed for emergencies, to quickly and efficiently warn residents of approaching tornadoes, brushfires, hurricanes and other hazards.

But when he was elected sheriff, Bieluch saw that it could also be used effectively for getting the word out about his initiatives, Carhart said.

"It's a way to reach a lot of people all at once," she said. "We're letting people know we're going to be out there."

That presence was felt firmly in the pocketbooks -- at least by speeders and other traffic offenders.

On the opening day Monday, deputies wrote 349 tickets in West Boca and unincorporated West Palm Beach. But that didn't slow people down. The day after, 381 tickets were handed out and Wednesday resulted in 391 tickets, Carhart said.

Turner wasn't satisfied with the sheriff's reason for making the calls.

"[Bieluch]'s getting his name out to people," she said. "It's advertising."

Richard Mizel works in the telemarketing industry and got a little of his own medicine Thursday at 10:58 p.m.

"It's outrageous," said Mizel of West Boca. "If I called someone at that hour, I'd be subject to a $10,000 fine."

Kevin Krause can be reached at kkrause@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6604.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 08, 2001

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