Next-Gen 911

Broward County, Fla., Emergency 911 System Still Troubled

Nine months into a historic creation of a countywide system — one of the largest consolidated 911 systems in the country and troubles remain.

by Brittany Wallman and Linda Trischitta, Sun Sentenel / July 28, 2015
The Broward Sheriff's Office, has consistently succeeded in meeting one overall standard — that 90 percent of the 911 calls are answered within 10 seconds despite other problems. Shutterstock

(TNS) - The caller to 911 is panting, panicked. People are screaming in the background. A pit bull named Kane is mauling a mother and her 9-year-old son in Fort Lauderdale. She pleads for help: "Please come!''

Suddenly, a recording interrupts her frantic appeal. "You have reached the Broward County Communications Center.''

She's been transferred to a non-emergency line.

Cut to another caller. He's witnessing what he thinks might be a double drowning in the Intracoastal Waterway behind his home. After repeated questions from a confused 911 call-taker who sounds unfamiliar with Pompano Beach, he gives up. "You're too stupid,'' he says, and hangs up.

Another emergency, another 911 call: A woman leaves french-fries cooking on her stove and they catch fire, just a couple of miles from a Fort Lauderdale fire station. But dispatchers send the trucks to the wrong address.

"They're so close to here. Why are they not here already?'' a 911 caller asked.

By the time firefighters arrive, the 88-year-old woman has suffered $25,000 in damage to her uninsured home.

Nine months into the historic creation of a countywide system — one of the largest consolidated 911 systems in the country — Broward's emergency 911 service is facing serious difficulties.

Call-takers and dispatchers are still struggling in their new roles, sending first-responders to wrong addresses, or the right address in the wrong city, or simply making critical mistakes. Dangerous failures plague the handheld radios police and firefighters depend on to communicate with dispatchers. The system that was supposed to save money is over budget for the coming year. And calls during the busiest hours continue to ring for too long before operators pick up, according to the county.

Following a 2002 voter dictate, emergency dispatching was consolidated last October from eight locations to three: Pembroke Pines, Coconut Creek and Sunrise. Two cities, Coral Springs and Plantation, declined to join and maintain their own dispatch operations.

The new system has had it successes.

It quickly met its chief goal: cutting down on time-absorbing call transfers when victims dialed 911 on cellular phones and reached the wrong dispatch center.

And the Broward Sheriff's Office, which has a contract to run the call centers for Broward County, has consistently succeeded in meeting one overall standard — that 90 percent of the 911 calls are answered within 10 seconds.

But the system's other challenges, evident early on, remain unresolved, the Sun Sentinel found, in interviews with key officials and a review of public records.

"I am absolutely disappointed where it stands,'' said Rick Carpani, who as director of Broward County's Office of Regional Communications and Technology is in charge of the system. "Everybody has to "give up the sandbox mentality and say, 'We're all in this together.' "

The troubles have proven so stubborn, Broward County is hiring a consultant to examine it.

"We're now into this thing and we have to hire a consultant to find out what we did wrong?'' Commissioner Chip LaMarca asked at a budget workshop in May.

Operator error

Early in July, an 18-month-old child was found in a neighbor's Hollywood pool.

A man at the scene called 911 with sparse details, saying "there's somebody who's passed out.'' The call-taker didn't ask for details to share with paramedics, or offer life-saving instructions as required.

As has happened repeatedly under the new system, responders were given only the most basic information. Police weren't initially called, another dispatcher error.

One Hollywood officer later complained bitterly:

"I was only a block away,'' the unidentified officer wrote to superiors, saying an officer could have beat paramedics to the scene and helped the child.

"In this situation, time was of the essence in possibly saving this toddler's life,'' the officer wrote. "Unfortunately, this ended with a tragic outcome for everyone involved.''

The child's fate after being hospitalized was unclear; Hollywood police said they did not have an update on the child's condition. The dispatcher was punished with counseling, based on the "egregiousness and severity'' of the case, records from the incident say.

But it's not an isolated case. Those close to the system, including Carpani, say they expected better performance by now from call centers.

Though the consolidation itself has many supporters, some remain frustrated.

"I think the intentions ... [are] good. But they are struggling to achieve this,'' said John Wolmer, who with his wife, Jan, has spent his days and nights over the last three decades listening to police radios in all three south Florida counties. Their company, News Busters, culls the airwaves for crime and fire news, sending text alerts to more than 100 subscribers, including radio and TV stations and the Sun Sentinel.

"The Broward County taxpayer deserves better,'' he said. "The firefighters have shown a lot of restraint in dealing with the inexperienced dispatchers. ... There are still things where they're sending the wrong trucks to a zone, and this goes on all day long.''

Wolmer said he believes the new system suffers a ''training and management'' problem. Before consolidation, dispatchers were familiar with their city's terrain and firefighter lingo, he said.

"Plantation and Coral Springs, the two holdouts, they did it right,'' he said. "I'm sure they're thrilled to death they're not a part of this.''

As complaints from agencies rolled in, the county set up a database system to track each one. According to that data, of 373 complaints between October and the end of April, the greatest number, 157 or 42 percent, were the fault of the operator or dispatcher. Only 10 were caller errors.

"The operator-related tickets lead to delayed response times, first responder safety concerns and administrative overhead,'' a county report from February reads.

Local knowledge lacking

The problems range from operators being rude or unprofessional to sending units to the wrong address — or even the wrong city — to not redialing callers who were disconnected.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said the address issue needs to be resolved by the county. A single address can exist in three, four, even five Broward cities. Ask the caller where they are, Feldman said, and often they incorrectly say "Fort Lauderdale.''

Call-takers were recently trained on mapping tools. But they lack local geographic knowledge in many cases, officials have complained.

"If you had a boater inside or outside of the inlet calling for immediate help, in the past we'd have a dispatcher who knew where the inlet was and that there was a bridge and the ocean outside of it,'' said Pompano Beach Fire Rescue Division Chief of Operations Chester Bolton. "Now they don't ask boaters if they can see land or the lighthouse. They don't know the landmarks or ask appropriate questions to get us to the patient.''

Still, Bolton said the operation has improved in quickly addressing issues raised by cities still adapting to the loss of the "one-on-one'' service they were used to.

Likewise, Feldman said he still believes "its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.''

At the Sheriff's Office, Robert Pusins, head of the Department of Community Services, told county commissioners his agency underestimated how much training would be needed for dispatchers and call-takers who were new to the job or the cities where they're now working.

"We took in employees from other agencies that didn't have the same level of training and certifications that we needed,'' he said.

Pusins told the Sun Sentinel that operators are learning the geography and adapting to the faster pace, but it takes time. Of the 1.4 million calls so far this year, only about 1 percent drew complaints from the cities, he said.

"Are we satisfied?'' he asked. "Are we where we want to be? Of course not. We're still striving every day to be better.''

JoAnne Alvarez, Federation Of Public Employees union leader for the approximately 400 call-takers and dispatchers, emphasized that this remains a transition year, and mistakes and complaints are declining. Too, operators are still getting used to being watched "like a hawk,'' with every second away from the phones noted.

"There was no playbook for any of this. We are pretty much the guinea pig in this whole situation,'' Alvarez said. "I think we've done a phenomenal job. The operators have gone above and beyond.''

Public records shows the call centers have failed to meet county standards every month since consolidation. During the busiest hour of the day, 90 percent of the 911 calls must be answered within 10 seconds. That's not consistently happening, Carpani says.

He has repeatedly questioned the Sheriff's Office's management of 911 operators' time.

"This is a seconds game,'' said Carpani. "So if you come back from break one or two minutes late, guess what happens?''

Pusins said the county doesn't give the Sheriff's Office credit for its successes and its work toward improvement. And he calls the busy-hour calculation "junk science'' and unfair.

"I don't think you'll find a 911 center anywhere in the country that's under the scrutiny we are,'' he said.

Paid for with a countywide property tax increase, the system is expected to save taxpayers money. Someday. But Sheriff's officials asked for $43.2 million for dispatch in the coming budget, a 14.6 percent increase.

"It's going up, up, up,'' Commissioner Lois Wexler groused at a budget workshop earlier this year. Wexler was one of the "yes'' votes in the contentious 5-4 split to create the system. "I'm not going to be part of that fraud. I'm just not. This onion's going to have to be peeled way, way back.''

Pusins said he needs to hire more operators and spend more money on training, to deliver the system the county is asking for.

Radio danger

For months, law enforcement personnel in south Florida had a mystery they couldn't solve. Something fiercely powerful was interfering with their radio signals.

Atop two condo towers in Hallandale Beach and Aventura, amplifiers meant to allow law enforcement signals to be heard inside the buildings were configured incorrectly. Instead, the signals were magnified and blasted back into the south Florida police and fire radio system.

Though the source of the interference was at long last discovered several months ago, smaller hindrances continue to vex the system. And more frightening, to people like Fort Lauderdale City Manager Feldman, is the age and state of Broward's radios in the first place.

In a June letter to Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, the Broward County Chiefs of Police Association complained about outages and static on the radios used by police and fire personnel to communicate with dispatchers.

Wilton Manors Police Chief Paul O'Connell, president of the group, told Henry the weaknesses caused police departments in Davie, Miramar, Pembroke Pines and Sunrise to switch to two-person patrols, and perform a roll call every hour.

"These ongoing problems have been and continue to be a hindrance to officer and public safety,'' he wrote.

Carpani says the Motorola radio system is at "end of life,'' a problem known well before 911 consolidation. He expects a new system to be in testing in 2018.

But Feldman didn't trust the county's radios to last till replacement, which he figures will take five years, not three. The radios are old, and he said even getting spare parts can be difficult. So his city declined to use the county radios, and spent $5 million to extend the radios' lives another five years.

"Dispatch seems to be working OK,'' Feldman said. "What was keeping me up at night is the radio system. The radio system is … the part where people shouldn't be sleeping.''


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