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Broward 911 system still struggles with processing calls, outdated facilities - new report

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony
Pedro Portal
/
Miami Herald

Broward County's 911 emergency communication system has improved since a critical assessment in 2016 — but still takes too long to process calls, according to a new consultant report.

The findings come after an investigation by the Sun-Sentinel earlier this year revealed a series of dropped calls, long wait times and staffing issues. Among some of the most jarring examples outlined were a child and a woman who died in separate incidents after delays in emergency medical response.

Broward County responded to those revelations by giving Broward Sheriff's Office money for more staff — at the request of Sheriff Gregory Tony — and ordering the report for $103,950. While BSO's personnel run the system, the county manage its technological infrastructure.

The 130-page document, obtained by WLRN after a public records request, details problems with response times, technology systems and facilities. It outlines the issues as wells as offers recommendations to solve them.

"While the system has implemented closest unit response for life-threatening emergencies, pursuant to the Broward County Charter, this evaluation reflects a degradation in overall call processing times compared to the 2016 report," it concludes.

Four key actions to be implemented

The report was sent to the county and sheriff's office this week ahead of a meeting next Tuesday, where it is likely to come under close scrutiny in what may be another heated debate about the future of Broward's emergency call center system. BSO wants complete control of the system.

Among the recommendations that the report details are:

Staffing levels should be "carefully" adjusted for call intake to achieve the target of answering 90% of 911 calls within 15 seconds

The report noted the money given to BSO for staffing increases. The county voted to give the sheriff's office $4.75 million to go towards salaries for new and current 911 operators.

"BSO staff has reported they have already been hiring new personnel and expect those personnel to be online and working in the 911 centers by approximately November 1st. With near-full staffing anticipated by the end of 2022, the County will be in a better position to assess call-answering performance with more appropriate staffing levels," the report says.

In September, there were only nine days in the month where at least 90% of the calls were answered within 15 seconds during the busiest hour, Broward County records show.

Industry standards should be followed in building new facilities

The county is planning to replace the three existing emergency call centers that make up the system with two new centers.

The Coconut Creek facility, which currently covers the northern section of the county, is "crowded, ergonomically and operationally inadequate, especially in terms of supervision, and retrofitted to the dispatch function. Bathrooms have no hot water and harsh lighting, which reportedly causes eye strain and headaches," the report states.

In the Pembroke Pines building, "the center is divided into two separate rooms, which is operationally challenging and functionally obsolete."

The technology system that allows automated callbacks of dropped calls should be updated

BSO does attempt callbacks for all 911 abandoned calls. However, the existing process requires telecommunicators to attempt the callback — impacting their ability to answer the ‘next’ 911 call.

Automation technology exists to fix this problem, "in essence making an automated callback to abandoned calls and allowing the initial 911 caller to immediately connect to a telecommunicator should they need."

Broward County has agreed to use this automation technology, but needs a system upgrade before it can be used.

The system that gives accurate location of callers should be upgraded

The system uses a free version of Rapid SOS. When using a cell phone to call 911, this service uses the device's exact location to "provide a more accurate location than otherwise available in the current 911 system."

Using the free version, a telecommunicator must copy and paste the caller’s telephone number onto a separate website. Rapid SOS has a premium subscription that allows a "direct interface between the county's existing technology and rapid SOS – thereby providing much quicker and consistent dispatchable locations for the telecommunicator."

County staff has already said they will upgrade the system in the future, but the report recommends they "deploy the service as quickly as possible to assist in the reduction of overall call processing times."

SunSentinelBrowardCommissionerBogen.PNG
Carline Jean
/
South Florida Sun Sentinel
County Commission Mark Bogen has a heated exchange with Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony during a County Commission meeting to discuss the sheriff's proposed fixes to a staffing crisis at the 911 call centers, on May 10.

System already under scrutiny

The Fitch report comes as the county is under scrutiny from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, who two weeks ago recommended that they give up full control of 911 operations to the sheriff's office.

The statewide MSD commission, formed after the 2018 school shooting that killed 17 people, sent a letter to the Broward County Commission encouraging them to let the BSO take over all emergency communication operations.

The emergency communications department is partially operated by the county, and BSO has argued for complete control of dispatch before.

"We've rectified all the problems that were identified on February 14th [2018]," Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony told the Broward County commission during a heated May meeting, where he asked for more money for 911 dispatchers.

At that meeting, Commissioner Mark Bogen argued that BSO needed to be removed from handling 911 communications and suggested an expert be brought in. Sheriff Tony disagreed and a shouting match between the two followed. "Management is the problem here," Bogen said.

Earlier this month, Broward County Mayor Michael Udine said that the MSD commission has done an "invaluable service to the residents of Florida, and I give a lot of weight to what they're saying."

He said he would've liked for a county representative to have been at the last meeting to say what they were doing to improve public safety.

"There's a lot of different moving parts on this whole thing. And we have to make sure that we make a thoughtful, appropriate decision to provide the best response for public safety," Udine said. When asked whether he'd be open to giving BSO full control of the 911 communication systems, he said he's "okay with doing whatever provides the most optimal outcome for public safety."

This is Fitch and Associates' second report on the emergency communications systems to county commission. The last one, published in 2016, outlined a system that needed to improve employee morale, technology and partnership between Broward Sheriff's Office and the county.

The latest report notes that since 2016 "there have been clear and significant improvements in the working relationship between major stakeholders. These improvements have allowed the system to consistently evaluate the System’s performance and demonstrate a strong track record of making system adjustments for the betterment of the County’s citizens and visitors."

The Broward County commission is expected to talk about the report during their upcoming Dec. 6 meeting.

Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.