Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony has issued the county an ultimatum: Either allow the Broward Sheriff’s Office to have complete and unfettered control of the Regional E-911 Communications System or he won’t sign another contract to run it.
Also known as the Operator’s Agreement, it would cover the first quarter of the new year, Jan. 1-March 31, 2023. Broward County basically “owns” the 911 dispatch operation but the Broward Sheriff’s Office runs it.
Tony recently sent a letter to Broward County Administrator Monica Cepero laying out his demands. If his demand isn’t met, his office will continue to staff and operate the system but he’ll bill the county the actual cost of running 911 per month, he said.
For her part, Cepero emailed county employees and elected officials to say that if the contract wasn’t signed before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the county will assume BSO has terminated the contract and Broward County will take back responsibility of taking 911 calls and dispatching first responders.
But such a transition could take at least six months. Meantime, BSO would be obligated to continue providing E-911 service. Cepero also said in recent emails that while the county commission worked to establish good will with Tony during recent E-911 discussions, “the safety and security of our community are too important to put at risk.”
In his letter to Cepero, Tony said among other things that the system’s technology falls short as identified in a recent review by the Fitch and Associates consulting firm. Moreover, he said, “the current bifurcated division of management control and operation … is inefficient and obsolete in light of the clear written recommendations by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Fire Chiefs Association of Broward County, Broward County Police Chiefs Association and the Broward County City Managers’ Association – all of whom have requested the entire regional communication system be solely the function of the BSO.”
Emergency dispatch service continues to be a problem for Broward County – so much so that individual cities now are looking to form their own 911 call centers. The issue is emergency response times: Consultants have recommended that Broward County hire more 911 operators so that they can answer 90 percent of 911 calls within 15 seconds.
But Fitch and Associates found that in September, there were nine days of that month – roughly only a third of the time – where about 90 percent of the calls were answered in under a quarter-minute, according to the firm’s report.
Residents are particularly sensitive to 911 responsiveness in Broward County, where a 19-year-old shooter claimed the lives of 17 students and staff and injured another 17 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. Currently, 28 of Broward County’s 31 municipalities participate in the Regional 911 system by contracting with BSO. (The cities of Plantation, Coral Springs and Coconut Creek do not participate.) There are three “public safety answering points,” or call centers, in Coconut Creek, Pembroke Pines and Sunrise.
The Fitch report found that abandoned calls – when a caller hangs up before a 911 operator answers – happened about 156,000 times in 2021, or about 12 percent of the time. BSO tries to call these individuals back but that takes up staff time and contributes to the backlog. There is technology that would allow automated call backs, but the current system isn’t compatible, the report says.
During a recent conference at the Broward County regional communications center, Tony said he strongly believes there should be a consolidated call center operating fully under BSO and not the county. He has voiced this opinion at several well-attended Broward County Commission meetings as well, where he’s gotten into some heated arguments with commissioners. Tony says he believes most police chiefs and fire chiefs support a consolidated system.
Tony also said many have left the employ of Broward 911 dispatch to work for other counties offering higher salaries. The problem is that there are too few operators, and some people must work up to 16 hours at a time and may experience high stress on the job. Tony has said that he wants a technologically up-to-date operations center to house all operations.
The Fitch report also pointed out, troublingly, that some of the same problems that existed at the time of the Stoneman Douglas shooting still exist today. One is that 911 calls from mobile phones in Parkland are sent to the Coral Springs Police Department because Coral Springs runs its own emergency medical service. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, formed after the shooting, has recommended that the county turn over oversight of the 911 system and place it under the control of the BSO, not county government.
But county officials have said at public meetings that that’s not going to happen.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the MSD Commission, says the current manner of providing 911 services in Broward County is too fragmented and that there are too many management problems. Gualtieri has said if the 911 system were placed entirely under the control of the BSO, then the elected sheriff could be held accountable.
One concern is that Coral Springs insists on having an independent dispatch service. Its police leadership and city government don’t want to join the BSO or county system, preferring to remain independent. “Since the MSD tragedy, the City of Coral Springs evaluated its response on that day,” a statement by its police says. “We identified areas of failure and areas of success. One of the most important things we did was make improvements – including transmission to Parkland officers, adding the county’s console to our system, using a paging system, etc.
“The reason we answer 911 calls for Parkland is that 93% of 911 calls are medical in nature and we are their provider. Perhaps most importantly, we looked to develop a solution for greater interoperability. There is technology out there that can accomplish this, and we purchased that equipment.”
It added, “Politically, it would also eliminate the need for oversight from an overinflated organization [referring to BSO]. For the last two years we have attempted to get the county to help us test the system (which would allow both the county and our systems to talk to each other). … Public safety is something we will NOT skimp on.”
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers local government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.