Yelling and cursing erupted in the Broward County Commission chambers Tuesday as Sheriff Gregory Tony asked commissioners for millions of dollars to combat a shortage of 911 operators.
His $11.4 million request would bring the total number of dispatchers to 534, although only about 370 dispatchers were employed within the Broward Sheriff's Office as of early May.
Sparks flew when Commissioner Mark Bogen said raising salaries and adding staff won’t fix the problem with the hostile work environment within the department. He claimed people are leaving their jobs as operators because they're treated poorly.
“When you have a business with constant problems, if you don’t make changes to your management to figure out, if you just throw money at it, I think it’s a huge mistake,” said Bogen.
The problem became apparent in April when reports came out that people lost their homes and even their lives because 911 operators didn’t answer calls for help.
Judy Garwood’s Hollywood home burned down in the early morning hours of April 10. She said repeated calls to 911 went unanswered.
“Everybody expects 911 to answer the phone,” said Garwood. “The Hollywood (Fire) Department, they said if 911 would’ve answered, I would’ve lost this one room. I wouldn’t have lost every single thing.”
Tony told commissioners Tuesday for the second time in two weeks that his staff is overworked and underpaid.
“Our folks get task saturated. They’re juggling with 15 balls at a time and doing an excellent job, but all it takes is one simple distraction or a surge, because that was the nexus of the Hollywood incident was a surge volume in calls, and then people are doing more than 15 balls, they’re doing 30,” Tony said.
In an effort to prevent another tragedy, commissioners voted Tuesday to have the county attorney draft a plan to give $4.7 million to BSO for raises, retention and recruitment of new and current 911 dispatch operators before the next fiscal year.
But other community advocates insist money isn’t the solution.
“We need to look at alternatives. How do we reduce the call volumes, instead of throwing money at the problem? Let's look at the root causes of the problem, the issues and then provide solutions,” said Mark Mitchell, who spoke in front of the commission on Tuesday.
BSO admits the 911 dispatcher shortage has been as severe as it is for months. But Broward County Mayor Michael Udine said the commission learned about the issue from the news media just last month.
“Up until April 26th, the house wasn’t on fire here. We didn’t know about this and we should’ve known about this. And however that is communicated, whoever is unhappy with me saying that, so be it,” Udine said.
The Sheriff said it would take years to get up to full staff.
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