Gulf Hammock community seeks to reestablish original boundary, identity

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By Sean Arnold

The citizens of the Gulf Hammock area, located around 17 miles southwest of Chiefland along U.S. Highway 19, want their official identity back.

With the blessing of an endorsement letter from the county, which was won unanimously at the Levy County Commission meeting on Aug. 22, the people of Gulf Hammock appear to be inching toward one of their major goals, which is the re-establishment of an original boundary and zip code to reflect Gulf Hammock.

The prelude to that endorsement was a July meeting in Gulf Hammock between area residents and county officials. They discussed complaints over emergency response times to the area as well as regaining their postal community status as Gulf Hammock.

The area once had its own zip code and official boundary. However, the zip code – 32639 – now just includes the local post office at the corner of 19 and County Road 326, leaving residents in the area forced to claim Morriston or Inglis as their physical mailing address. The distinction is particularly unhelpful in light of the fact that, without rural mail delivery to the area, those residents are collecting their mail through P.O. boxes at the Gulf Hammock post office. It also appears to complicate matters for commercial delivery services like UPS and FedEx.

The residents of the area also prefer to self-identify as Gulf Hammock citizens, not with towns of some significant distance away like Morriston and Inglis.

Emily Casey, a Gulf Hammock resident who led that initial meeting in July, is spearheading an effort to petition the United States Postal Service (USPS) to expand the 32639 zip code to its old boundary.

“We’ll be Gulf Hammock again,” said Casey, after thanking the Commission and her fellow Gulf Hammock citizens.

Casey estimated there were around 300 people living in Gulf Hammock when it had its own boundary.

One of the requirements involved in the process is to secure backing from local governments as well as from as many state and federal legislators as possible who represent the area. Gulf Hammock residents at least partly met that requirement at the County Commission meeting on Aug. 22, where, the Commission unanimously voted in favor of a letter of support to expand the zip code boundary to its old line.

Casey presented the community’s request before the BOCC with a large group of fellow Gulf Hammock residents in attendance.

BOCC chair John Meeks said he was informed by USPS that the zip code was reduced to encompass only the post office when the post office was previously under threat of closure.

Commissioner Matt Brooks said State Rep. Charlie Stone and U.S. Rep. Neil Dunn have signaled support for Gulf Hammock’s efforts.

“You’re going to have our support,” Brooks said.

Commissioner Mike Joyner urged the area’s residents to each write letters to their legislators.

“We need you all as much as you need us,” Joyner said.

Commissioner Lilly Rooks offered the motion, seconded by Rock Meeks, to issue a letter of support to expand the zip code boundary back to its original line.

The other issue of concern for residents of the Gulf Hammock area are what they see as excessive delays in response times by first responders working calls in the area. Specifically, delays caused by emergency services heading in the wrong direction or passing the Gulf Hammock addresses they’re meant to service because of faulty mapping or misinterpretation or misuse of mapping systems.

As with the previous July meeting, residents aired out their grievances over what they see as a problem that has afflicted the area for more than two decades.

Some residents, like Tom Ashley, who helped organize the July meeting, cite errors concerning their addresses in GPS-based apps and hardware like Garmin and Google Maps, which he says exacerbates the issue. County officials, however, say their emergency responders – law enforcement, fire rescue, EMS – are trained to use the county’s Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system to locate addresses. The CAD, which Sheriff Bobby McCollum said is used in an estimated 90 percent of counties in the state, is a grid-based mapping system that integrates all emergency services and helps determine the nearest available responders to calls. Officials at the meeting guessed it has been in place in Levy County for two to three years.

If responders are using the CAD system, they say, the city listed for an address shouldn’t factor into their determination of the caller’s location. So Gulf Hammock area residents with Morriston or Inglis addresses shouldn’t cause first responders to incorrectly head to those latter towns when an emergency call from the Gulf Hammock area is made.

Mike West, Levy County 911 Coordinator, who also attended the July meeting, said addresses in the area have checked out okay on the CAD system since that July meeting. BOCC chair John Meeks said the county flags errors for a monthly review when there are delays to addresses. He said the county is working to fix any potential issues with the CAD, but human errors – such as first-responders using GPS in lieu of the CAD – and issues of unavailability or delays due to the remoteness of the location could remain.

“As long as our people follow the CAD,” Meeks said, “it’s going to get them to the right place, whether it says Inglis, or Morriston, Gulf Hammock, whatever. It will get them to within the vicinity of the home. The big thing is, addresses have to be marked, visible from the roadway.”

But Gulf Hammock residents at the meeting pushed pack against the claim that the CAD system is not the problem, citing instances where ambulances have made it to Gulf Hammock but still struggled to find a location, or have initially headed in the wrong direction altogether.

“I appreciate what you’re saying,” one resident said, “but all of our 30 or 40 examples could not be human error. There is something else in play in Gulf Hammock when ambulances and troopers and other responders cannot find Gulf Hammock.”

West said his office can flag the area’s homes as being in Gulf Hammock if he can correspond with a map that shows the original boundary of the the area – the boundary that the residents are petitioning to return to. While this doesn’t change the official address, it amounts to giving an extra instruction to the CAD user to further ensure against an error.

Rock Meeks promised the county will make any necessary fixes to the CAD system, but reminded concerned residents that the county has no power to correct any address or location errors that might continue to exist on a Garmin device or on Google Maps.

“There are a lot of things coming into play right now,” Meeks said. “We didn’t get us into where we’re at right now, but we’re going to do the best we can to get us from where we are to where we need to be.”

After hearing more concerns from residents, County Coordinator Wilbur Dean consulted with Public Safety Director Mitch Harrell and said Gulf Hammock residents at the meeting could list their addresses in order for Harrell and his office to do in-person checks at their homes to ensure the CAD system is representing their locations properly.

“I was assured this was fixed, so we’re going to go back and revisit this,” John Meeks said. “I ask that you keep in mind that it may not always be the issue that we’re not dispatching the right address or can’t find the right address. Sometimes it’s an issue with available ambulances, or deputies have to leave a zone. If ambulances are driving past places or going in the wrong direction, then these are issues we can address – that we will address.

“The last thing this Board wants is for anyone to suffer or die because of poor response or lack of response.”

Joyner asked for patience from Gulf Hammock when it comes to the postal and 911 issues.

“We’re not going to drop it,” he said. “I spend 3/4 to 9/10 of my days in Gulf Hammock.

“It’s fixable, but it’s not an overnight process.”