Parkland Shooting Report Highlights Radio Issues, Offers Fixes

A task force reviewing the response to the Feb. 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting found deficiencies in radio communication bandwidth and a lack of control of the system during the incident.

by Larry Barszewski. Sun Sentinel / February 1, 2019
Shutterstock/Chris worldwide

(TNS) — A task force overseeing Broward County’s review of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting exposed some raw emotions Thursday as it delved into police radio problems that contributed to delays and frustrated responding officers.

Law enforcement officers bristled at some of the preliminary findings that put blame on them instead of the county’s antiquated public safety radio system, with many shaking their heads as consultants walked the task force through their review to date.

And new questions were raised about why the Broward School District is still using that system. Lois Wexler, a former county commissioner and task force chairwoman, said the school district was told back in 2015 it needed to get off the public safety airwaves because it was taking up too much of the system’s capacity.

“Four years ago, I was still a county commissioner and they were supposed to make plans to come off the county system,” Wexler said. “What is the problem? Is it the School Board? Is it [Superintendent Robert] Runcie, or is it the technology division over there? …. How do you not get to the bottom of this, four years later after two tragedies in our community?”

Sheriff’s Office officials said the radio system was already working near capacity even before the school shootings on Feb. 14. Angie Mize, the sheriff’s assistant director for communications, said school bus radio traffic and other activity when school is getting out already takes up 80 percent of the system’s capacity, leaving little space for officers responding to a mass casualty incident.

Mize said there are about 4,000 non-public safety users on the system. Plans are underway for regular county employees to move onto a different radio system by April, Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson said, but he said the School Board still hasn’t decided what it wants to do next.

The interim report by the nonprofit National Police Foundation, said problems with the flawed radio system were exacerbated because no one took control of radio usage during the Parkland shooting. No one directed responders on which channels to use and didn’t order non-essential users off the system until 50 minutes after the incident began.

The foundation’s preliminary recommendations include:

-- Having the county and cities work together to “construct strong communications systems and processes” to handle future multi-agency incidents;

-- Improving the routing of emergency calls between the county and separate dispatch centers run by Coral Springs and Plantation;

-- Working to bring Coral Springs and Plantation into the county’s integrated public safety communications system, or at least improving practices so communications among the different systems don’t slow responses during critical incidents;

-- Getting non-emergency users — such as county park employees and school district bus drivers — off the public safety radio system, while putting together policies for how the radios are supposed to be used.

“There was no ability at that time for any one person to take command of the radio system and to give directions for all of the people that were responding,” said Frank Straub, who is in charge of the National Police Foundation effort. “Because that information wasn’t relayed, you had at times an uncoordinated response into the building, around the building, and that causes problems. What happens if there had been a secondary attack?”

©2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.