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911 calls going unanswered in a Florida county, $4 million being allotted to fill 90 positions

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Jackson, TN, May 14, 2003. An operator takes a call at the Jackson 911 Dispatch Center. Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA News photo.


Lisa J. Huriash

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

In response to an escalating crisis of 911 emergency call-takers walking off the job and leaving emergency calls unanswered, the Broward County Commission on Tuesday authorized millions of dollars to hike salaries of existing workers and raise salaries as a hiring incentive.

The move for the newly allotted $4 million comes after sheriff’s officials said they can’t fill an empty 90 positions — or even keep the 911 call-takers they already have — which has meant sometimes dire outcomes for Broward residents calling for help during their emergencies.

“We have to do something right now,” urged Commissioner Steve Geller, adding “nobody told us this was an issue” from the Sheriff’s Office, which handles the 911 calls for the county.

The 911 crisis was first exposed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel last month, which reported that scores of calls go unanswered by 911 communications workers because the call centers, managed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, are gravely understaffed. For one family, the result was tragic: a baby was dying, and the phone at the 911 center rang and rang and rang. The 2-month-old baby died, and the family blames the 911 system.

Long-term though, officials said they realize something needs to change. A study is now underway by Fitch & Associates, the same company that conducted a 2016 report when the 911 system was dogged by complaints, mistakes and bad publicity.

Bruce Moeller, a former Sunrise fire chief and city manager who now works as a consultant for Fitch & Associates, assured county commissioners that Fitch would use data to analyze how the regional 911 system is performing, and the number of “abandoned calls,” the calls that communications workers don’t answer, will be studied.

The report could be ready within three weeks, he said. Specific recommendations to improve the 911 system, created by “hour by hour” studies of the people who are needed to make it work, could be ready by November.

The final study needs to include hang-up data, exit interviews with 911 workers, and work conditions, said Mayor Michael Udine, so the general public can feel safe when they call 911.

Commissioners said they’d use the findings to determine whether the ownership of 911 needs to be reconsidered; Sheriff Gregory Tony suggested at a previous meeting that the county remove itself from 911 and let the Sheriff’s Office totally manage it, yet Commissioner Mark Bogen said the county’s contract with BSO to run the system should be yanked.

Tuesday’s meeting was another public attempt by the County Commission to deal with the embattled 911 call centers.

In addition to call-takers not answering the phones, workers who are hired and trained quickly resign, the Sun Sentinel reported; the average tenure of the new hires who left from 2019 through 2021 is about 6½ months.

And 911 centers are so understaffed that workers routinely log outlandishly long overtime shifts — enough extra work that many are doubling and tripling their regular pay. One communication worker puts in so many overtime shifts that the person has been known to grab naps in a car before clocking back in for another shift.

“We’re going to have to come up with a more dynamic plan to right this ship,” Commissioner Tim Ryan said on Tuesday.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com or 954-572-2008. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash.

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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