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MSD safety commission: Broward Sheriff should takeover "dysfunctional" county 911 dispatch system

Peter Haden

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission is asking Broward County to 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, met Wednesday in Sunrise. There, commissioners agreed to send a letter to the Broward County Commission encouraging them to let The Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) take over all emergency communication operations.

The county commission is also expecting a report on the dispatch issues from an outside consulting firm before the end of the year. Two commissioners said the preliminary report was in the hands of county administration already and should soon be available to them.

"It's been almost five years," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during his opening remarks. "If you go over today up the road to Stoneman Douglas High School and you pick up your cell phone, and you call 911 ... the same thing that happened on Feb. 14, 2018, is going to happen. Your call is going to go to the Coral Springs police department."

That's because Coral Springs opted out and does not participate in the county's regional 911 system.

On Feb. 14, 2018, when panicked students dialed 911 from inside their classrooms, calls were routed to Coral Springs, where staff dispatched fire / EMS workers to the area of the school and then transferred the calls to Broward County’s regional 911 center.

Coral Springs dispatchers did not initially provide the information to on-duty Coral Springs police officers, costing precious minutes while students and teachers inside the school begged for help.

“Coral Springs Communications Center received at least twelve 911 calls before there was any CSPD radio traffic notifying on-duty CSPD officers of the shooting. The first Coral Springs police radio traffic indicating an active shooter at MSDHS was at 2:26 p.m., which was 4 minutes after Coral Springs received the first 911 call,” reads a segment from the commission’s initial report.

The commission heard from Coral Springs Police Chief Brad McKeone during their Wednesday meeting. He said that he's made changes to a flawed system.

A 911 call from Parkland will go to Coral Springs dispatch and then be announced on a county-wide channel before being transferred to the county, McKeone said. But once the caller is transferred to the county dispatch, they will have to answer a number of questions about their emergency, costing precious and life-saving minutes.

The commission then heard from Broward Sheriff's Office Col. Oscar Llerena, who runs their dispatch. He told the commission he is limited in what he can do because the county owns all of the dispatch technology.

The 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," Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony told the Broward County commission during a heated May meeting, where he asked for more money for 911 dispatchers.

The county voted to give BSO $4.75 million to go towards salaries for new and current 911 operators after the 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 during the May meeting.

After that, the county paid Fitch & Associates, the same company that conducted a 2016 report on the 911 dispatch system, $103,950 for an analysis of the dispatch issues. Commissioners expect to have that report before the end of the year.

MSD safety commissioner Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina in the 2018 shooting, said during Wednesday's meeting that he'd like to bring the county in to answer questions.

"The problem is there's an impediment at the county level that's preventing both of you from achieving what we're all trying to achieve here," he told the police officers. "It's dysfunctional. It puts everybody's lives at risk. It makes your jobs impossible to do."

Pinellas County Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who also sits on the commission, criticized the county's lack of urgency.

"It appears that the people that are there in Broward County government don't seem to have the concern or know the importance that we are experiencing here on this thing," he said.

Broward County Mayor Michael Udine said 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 Wednesday 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."

Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller said he has "little regard" for the recommendations of the MSD safety commission, which he called "largely political," and he'll look at the Fitch report for ideas too.

"When I get it, I'll look at it and read it and see if I agree with it," he said Wednesday.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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