‘Everyone Expects 911 to Answer': Broward Struggles With Understaffed 911 Call Center

“We’re going to continue to lose these people,” Sheriff Gregory Tony warned. “This will always be a problem here whether we want to admit it or not"

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Broward County's emergency call center is greatly understaffed and the sheriff told county commissioners his agency does not have the money to fill the empty positions.

In addition, Sheriff Gregory Tony said Tuesday that he is also having a difficult time retaining other dispatchers who can make more money elsewhere.

“We’re going to continue to lose these people,” he warned. “This will always be a problem here whether we want to admit it or not.”

Some Broward County Commissioners told the sheriff to fix the issues immediately.

“Give everybody a raise ... and you won’t lose anybody,” Commissioner Mark Bogen told the sheriff. “You got the money to do that right now without us giving you a penny.”

Tony told commissioners Tuesday he’s not going to make “random or quick decisions” that can create other problems. He agreed to make a presentation outlining financial needs at the May 10 commission meeting.

The understaffing came to light in a South Florida SunSentinel investigation that documented thousands of unanswered 911 calls. The newspaper found that abandoned calls, those which are disconnected before they are answered, increased 26% from 2019 to 2021. In February, there were 14,505 abandoned calls. That is the latest month for which statistics are available.

Currently, there are 92 openings for 911 dispatchers in Broward County. Tony says many who leave go to other cities and counties for better salaries. Those who remain work 12-hour, or sometimes 16-hour, shifts to keep up with the call volume.

“They’re juggling 15 balls in the air with the expectation that one of them will never drop, that’s unfair," Tony said. "We need more personnel, we have to be competitive and the best in this country bc we are going to continue to lose these people."

Sheriff's officials said high stress and pay that is not competitive are reasons for the understaffing.

Commissioner Jared Moskowitz, who served as the state's emergency management director until last year, said county government does not move quickly, sending issues to committees before anything happens. “I look at this as a real-time problem.”

He cited as an example a house in Hollywood that burned to the ground last month after calls to 911 went unanswered.

“Problems don’t get better with time in emergency management, they get worse," Moskowitz said. “What happened in this instance was a tragedy, and the sheriff is telling us it’s going to happen again.”

Judy Garwood spoke to NBC 6 about the fast-moving fire at her Hollywood home on April 10 that left her and her boyfriend homeless.

“Everybody expects 911 to answer the phone. Four times, I have it on my phone, four times where I called,” Garwood said.

On the day of the fire, Garwood listened to the phone ring for six or seven minutes. She hung up and called back a total of three times, but no dispatcher ever answered.

“I was freaking out, what in the heck? All the neighbors were out here calling," Garwood said. "We don’t have a car, they drove to the fire station over here on Dixie and the fire lady herself said, ’We knew nothing about this until they knocked on the door.'"

The SunSentinel story mentioned the house fire, along with other examples of people whose 911 calls went unanswered. These included a man with a medical emergency and a family whose baby was turning blue, and later died after the father took the child to the hospital.

Moskowitz asked for “the number is to fix this,” whether it was $250,000 or $500,000. “If dollars help address this, then let’s just appropriate the dollars.”

Tony did not have a number instantly, but said he’ll get it ready for commissioners. “We’ll come back with a needs request,” he said.

Garwood is thankful she survived the fire. BSO said dispatchers tried to call her back after she hung up, and that they got a police officer to respond to her home two minutes after her first 911 call.

But Garwood said she never saw an officer on the scene.

“That’s not true, I never saw any police officer here at all," she said. "Fire people, the Hollywood Department, they said if 911 would’ve answered, I would’ve lost this one room, I wouldn’t have lost every single thing."

County commissioners seemed frustrated by some of the non-answers they got and wondered how it got to this point.

”Is Broward meeting the national standards?” Commissioner Steve Geller asked, referring to expectations that 90% of emergency calls get answered within 15 seconds.

“Yes, there are occasions where we fall short,” Sheriff's Colonel Nichole Anderson responded. ”For the most part we are meeting it,” she said. “More times than not” the agency meets its standards.

”It’s the qualifier you keep adding at the end that is bothering me,” Geller said.

BSO recommended residents do the following in the meantime to help alleviate the problem:

  • Only call 911 if it is a true emergency. BSO said part of the problem is non-emergency callers taking up the precious time of dispatchers who need to focus on emergency calls.
  • BSO urged residents to call the non-emergency number for things like loud parties or fireworks. The non-emergency number is (954) 764-HELP (4357).
NBC 6 and Associated Press
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