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Broward County Commission To Vote On Hollywood Park As Site For New 911 Radio Tower

Associated Press
Police look on as students return to class for the first time since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

Broward County commissioners will vote  Tuesday on whether to allow a new 911 radio tower to be built in a Hollywood park.

The tower under debate is part of a highly-anticipated upgrade to the county's regional 911 public safety radio system, which will see a total of seven new towers added. It comes after problems with communication during the shootings at  Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017  and again at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

The New System

The Broward County commission agreed in May 2017 to spend more than $60 million to upgrade its public safety radio system to what's called a P25 system. The new system will be on a different frequency that can handle more users at the same time.

The system was purchased shortly after the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport, which killed five people and injured six others. But it had been under consideration for years before that because the current system reached its full potential in 2002, according to the county. 

When the airport shooting happened, emergency workers couldn’t get through to each other because there was too much traffic on the system, and it experienced what's known as 'throttling.' It happened again after the shooting in Parkland.

"Every day that goes by that this radio system is not fixed is a day of vulnerability," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. He chairs the statewide public safety commission investigating the Parkland shooting.

The new radio system that Broward County purchased will have about 30 percent more space for traffic, according to the county.

"We're moving to another frequency with this new system, a frequency that's much less crowded. It lessens the chance of interference," explains Trace Jackson,  Broward County director of regional public safety and emergency services.

How The Regional 911 System Works In Broward

There are three call centers around the county, called Public Safety Answering Points or PSAPS. (Their exact locations are not disclosed for security reasons.) But when someone calls 911 in Broward County, the call does not necessarily get routed to the closest call center. 

"The incoming call goes to the next available operator, which could be in either of those three centers," Jackson said.

(There's a disclaimer for residents in Coral Springs or Plantation: those cities are not a part of the regional 911 dispatch system, so they have their own call centers.)

Read More: After Stoneman Douglas Shooting, Renewed Attention On Broward's 'Vulnerable' 911 System

The operator who receives the incoming emergency call uses a computer program to figure out if the person calling needs police, EMS or fire rescue. The operator then sends the information to another person, a dispatcher, through a computer program. Then the dispatcher alerts and sends out first responders. 

That's why the public safety radio system is so important: Though there are other ways to alert first responders with computers, getting help sent to the right place in an emergency happens largely with emergency radios. 

"Most of them are all available by radio," Jackson said.

Here's what those steps look like:

Broward 911
Credit Courtesy of Broward County Regional Public Safety and Emergency Management. / WLRN
Standard Emergency Communications (911 Call Taking and Dispatch) Process.

The Last Tower

But in order for a new radio system to work, the county needs more towers. 

At a Broward County Commission workshop last month, commissioners agreed that there's an urgent need for the new system.

"I want this to be done as quickly as possible, before, heaven forbid, we have another incident in Broward County where we cannot provide a proper radio communications," Commissioner Nan Rich said.

To upgrade the system, the county needs to add seven new emergency radio towers for a total of 16 towers.

The current debate centers around where one of them — which would give emergency coverage to Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, and Dania Beach — should be located.

"The current obstacle is the radio tower placement in West Lake Park in the city of Hollywood," Pinellas County Sgt. John Suess reported to the MSD public safety commission last month.

Some people who live in Hollywood don't want the tower in their park. 

"It's the last thing driving east that anyone — any visitors or any residents — are going to see before they get to the beach," said Alex Brown, who lives nearby.

The tower would be made of 300-foot-tall metal poles that sit on concrete. Twenty-five-foot-tall antennae would then be tied to the top.

West Lake Park is popular for kayakers because of its three-mile stretch of mangrove estuary. It's just west of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The city of Hollywood is backing residents and asked the county to put the 911 antennae on top of a hotel and apartment building on Young Circle — called The Circ — instead of building a tower in the park.

"This is permanent. This is forever. It's going to be a huge eyesore," Brown said.

West Lake Park
Credit Courtesy of Broward County Commission Presentation / WLRN
The Broward County Commission is using this map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA, to look at where the tower would sit under two feet of sea-level rise.

An eyesore is likely not enough of a reason for Broward County to move the tower to a building rooftop, especially because county engineers say the park would get the new 911 system up and running by the end of this year — but the Circ could push the upgrade to summer 2020. 

The city of Hollywood promises that its staff could speed up the process to get the rooftop permitted to counter the concerns about time. But the other issue is cost.

The tower in West Lake Park is projected to cost $750,000 to build, whereas retrofitting the Circ is estimated to cost between $2.1 and $2.8 million. 

The city of Hollywood and its engineer argue those cost estimates are higher than what the project would actually cost to put the 911 antennae on the Circ's rooftop. 

County Commissioner Beam Furr, whose district includes Hollywood, is also concerned that the West Lake Park option is in too vulnerable an area for a 911 tower:

"So if you talk about a surge, you talk about a hurricane surge, you're right there on the Intracoastal — what are we thinking of?" Furr asked fellow commissioners at the workshop last month.

The county has placed 911 antennae on top of two building rooftops in the past, but Jackson, from the county 911 system, said that's never the first choice because of concerns about the quality of coverage. 

"It appears to be suboptimal at this point," Jackson said about radio coverage on top of The Circ.

Commissioners are expected to decide Tuesday if West Lake Park in Hollywood should be used for the 911 tower, becoming part of the long-awaited radio system upgrade.

"We need to move forward and get people of Broward County the public safety that they need — that's so crucial," Commissioner Dale Holness said.