By Audrey Fraizer
The future looked packed although quite doable despite a national political convention two years down the road when Thomas Wolff took over as manager of the Tampa Police Department (TPD) Communications Bureau in November 2010.
The retired major knew the outside workings of the bureau through a 30-year career that included his command of police communications.
Wolff also had experience in crowd control, which naturally comes with the territory for police in a city that hosts mega-events like the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Guavaween, and the parade of multicultural fairs held year-round.
He figured that inclement weather might be an issue during the three days the Republican National Convention (RNC) was in town, and both events would add to the hundreds of 9-1-1 calls coming into the center daily. The TPD Communications Bureau processes more than a million calls each year, of which—in 2010—386,488 calls were placed directly to 9-1-1.
“I had a year, year and a half to get ready for the convention,” Wolff said. “I knew from the start, it would take a lot of preparation and a lot of hours.”
Wolff set out his game plan, beginning with a system check to assess the known factors to better prepare for the looming convention. While the federal government handles the bulk of security, it was up to Tampa Police to pick up the balance.
On the plus side
The TPD Communications Bureau regularly assigns dispatchers to a Special Operations channel during major events. Six dispatchers and 14 calltakers are available on every shift for the six police sectors in the city’s three primary police districts.
The number of delegates, alternate delegates, Republican staff and speakers, and credentialed media inside the convention hall would add up to far less than the 70,774 fans crowding Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII. The roughly 50,000 convention visitors would make up the difference, and just like in sporting events, not everyone would be cheering for the same side.
Wolff organized committees to complement RNC priorities, outlined concerns, and scheduled several conference calls with agencies in Denver, Colo., and St. Paul, Minn., which hosted the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and RNC, respectively, in 2008. He asked lots of questions.
“Probably the same questions someone will ask me in two years,” he said.
The TPD Communications Bureau training room was converted to a dedicated RNC operations center, with 10 dispatch positions and flat screen televisions to provide live feeds from helicopter links. He added dispatch positions and put 30 dispatchers through tactical dispatch training. All dispatchers working the main RNC talk grounds during the week were part of the TPD Tactical Dispatch Team. He talked to police about keeping radio traffic down and methods for keeping peace among the political activists. He made contingency plans in case of power outages, the radio system going down, or CAD malfunctions.
On the days immediately before the convention, he monitored the path of Tropical Storm Isaac, which forced convention planners to scrap the first day of scheduled events.
“We were in RNC and hurricane mode,” Wolff said.
The same applied to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, which Acting Manager Gordon Silver estimates the reverse of TPD’s job during the week.
“We were certainly ready but our involvement for the convention was maybe two to three percent,” Silver said. “We had a special radio channel set up but didn’t use it other than testing it every day. We were more involved with the storm, which we believe kept many people away.”
Silver credits the TPD for a “very uneventful week” in his 37-year career.
“They were on it,” he said. “Even the special arrangements at the center, like meals and snacks, I heard went well.”
Wolff is, of course, relieved that everything went off without a hitch. He never had to fall back on contingency plans and the activists, although noisy at times, stayed inside their designated protest area. Only two people were arrested, compared to the hundreds arrested four years earlier at the RNC held in St. Paul, Minn.
Did he like their part in hosting the national event? Very much so and for reasons beyond the glitter and ceremony.
“The RNC gave the Tampa Police Department the ability to show the country and the world the professionalism of not only the men and women of its agency but of all the law enforcement agencies throughout Florida who assisted in making this a successful and peaceful event,” he said. “The many hours that were spent in preparation and training by the dispatchers helped build comradery within Communications and gave them invaluable training for any future events that Tampa may experience.
“Never before had they had to dispatch to thousands of officers from numerous different agencies, each with their own radio system and unique system of dispatch, and they stepped up to the challenge and were successful,” Wolff continued. “They should all be proud of their accomplishment.”