A partnership between HCSO and PCPD ensures the hundreds of thousands of guests that come to Plant City for the 11-day event remain safe and sound.
When you have hundreds of thousands of people flooding into Plant City for the Florida Strawberry Festival safety is a top priority for local law enforcement.
Florida Strawberry Festival General Manager Paul Davis and Security Manager Tim Lovett are both former deputies with Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Their partnership with HCSO allows Plant City Police to be able to handle safety throughout the city while deputies tackle security inside the grounds.
Guests come through a mandatory bag check with a security wand at the festival’s entrance, cars that will be on the grounds after hours have to be pre-registered and the volunteers and guests heavily utilize the “see something, say something” mantra. Only emergency vehicles are allowed inside the festival during its operating hours.
The festival spends approximately $500,000 annually on security and have the entire interior and perimeter heavily patrolled with mounted, bike and on foot officers.
HCSO has a major set up remote base inside the grounds and officers patrol the entire grounds and set up show at some of the major shows and events. You’ll be hard pressed to walk into any room or section of the festival and not see the white uniforms.
Once you step out the gates you’ll see a scattering of officers in navy as PCPD handles traffic, pedestrian safety and all outlying Plant City.
It’s a feat that is only able to be pulled off thanks to the partnership between units.
“HCSO handles the inside and we handle everything outside the grounds,” PCPD Spokesman Al Van Duyne said. “It’s a partnership that has been going on for many years. We get along great and really utilize our different strengths. You’ll see our guys pulling extra shifts to help and you’ll see a lot of their’s taking their vacation days and using them to work the festival. We all want this to go off without a hitch.”
If you’re inside the festival and have a problem you create a larger issue when you leave the property and attempt to have a PCPD officer help you with the issue. If it occurred within festival grounds you should seek out one of the HCSO officers in white to get your problem solved as quickly as possible.
The major increase in pedestrian traffic is always a concern for PCPD. Parking is an intense experience at the festival and to circumvent it many park a mile or two away and walk or take a shuttle to the gates. You’ll see families with small children walking along the side of Alexander Street and with the major increase in traffic it quickly becomes a stressful commute.
Van Duyne asks drivers to operate their vehicle with extra care during the 11-days. Leave at least a half car length if not more in-between you and the vehicle in front of you. Odds are high the person behind you will not notice you’ve come to a stop and you’ll want the extra space to move out of the way when they slam on their brakes.
Don’t run red lights. They change quickly here in Plant City and police will be watching for any traffic infractions. Those who throw caution to the wind may very well be barreling into a cross walk that just turned and eager children that have darted out could be at stake.
To combat the heavily increased foot traffic a pedestrian signal will be in operation at Edwards St. and W. Reynolds St. throughout the festival.
PCPD has been understaffed for years. According to Van Duyne the average number of officers have stayed the same for decades despite the immense growth throughout the city.
Add nearly 600,000 guests to town and the department is stretched to its limit.
“Primarily we just have to know that, hey, it’s 11 days, so let’s do what we can to get through it,” Van Duyne said. “It’s an inevitable event, it’s going to happen. We — from the chief down — try to be very positive. What people don’t know is it’s 11 straight days of work for our officers. If you’re not on traffic you’re at the festival. You’re working nonstop. We understand it’s rough for us to deal with, but it’s by and large a positive experience. We know we’re making a difference so pulling the extra hours, taking those extra shifts isn’t so difficult.”
This year, commuters and police have the extra stress of road closures throughout Plant City. Woodrow Wilson St. between W. Reynolds St. and Oak Ave. has been closed from Jan. 19 to March 22. Ritter Street, from Reynolds Street north to Cleveland Street, is closed through March 15. Edwards Street, from West Reynolds Street to Oak Avenue, is also closed until March 15 and Oak Avenue, from Edwards Street west to Ritter Street will be closed until March 13.
The officers work tirelessly to attempt to keep response time at the same level it was prior to the festival as the normal patrol will remain in place. However, those living around the festival should be aware the traffic could cause a slight delay if there is a non-emergency problem.
“Our officers working the festival are working on a different channel than the rest of our force,” Van Duyne said. “But someone at the unit monitor both channels so if something happens, say there is an emergency on the the North West side of town, the officers near the festival can stop pedestrians and open the roadways to expedite traffic and funnel the cars through so it’s not impeding any police or ambulance vehicles we know are on the way.”
The Grand Parade is such an elaborate event that extra Florida Highway Patrol reserve troopers as well as extra HCSO deputies come out to help PCPD secure the many roadways, but up barriers and keep the thousands of viewers safe.
PCPD’s Facebook page will have routinely updated posts on roadway closures throughout the event. Van Duyne said the ultimate goal is to keep people safe and vigilant throughout the entire experience.
“It’s truly a mindset,” Van Duyne said. “You breathe and you get through it. You gotta be a glass half full kind of person. Weekdays aren’t that bad, really Monday through Thursday are relatively calm. Weekends are off the chain and you just have to buckle down. The weather always plays a big part in what we prepare to see. If it’s cool less people tend to come. Rain is a deterrent. Heat doesn’t really see to keep people home. So we monitor everything and do what we have to do to make sure all of Plant City stays safe.”