Police and fire chiefs in Broward County are recommending the county give up control of its emergency radio communications system because they don’t think it’s capable of fixing the broken system that impeded the response to the Parkland school shooting.
Associations of fire and police chiefs took votes, which are not binding, to shift the system to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, according to presentations Wednesday at a meeting of the state commission investigating the Parkland massacre.
“We think that the system is in such dire straits that this is the best solution to the problem,” Sunrise Police Chief Tony Rosa told the MSD Public Safety Commission.
Members of the commission described the failure to fix the communications system as a grave threat to public safety and said they were frustrated at the inability of local officials to address a well-known and longstanding obstacle to the delivery of life-saving services.
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“I throw my hands up,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. “I rarely find things that I can’t fix. This ain’t fixable the way it is. It’s a mess.”
The county has been struggling to replace an antiquated system that crippled the police response to two mass casualty incidents: The January 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where five people were killed, and the February 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff were killed and 17 injured.
During the school shooting, some officers resorted to using hand signals to communicate with each other when they couldn’t get through on their radios.
The 27-year-old system has long been overdue for replacement, having suffered from reliability and efficiency problems so severe that some cities refused to join the regional system and others are threatening to pull out.
The system experienced a one-hour failure May 26. Officers were pulled off the road and ordered to reserve radio use for emergencies only, forcing them to stop any work beyond responding to urgent calls, said Gualtieri, who said he obtained that information through conversations with Broward police chiefs.
“Cities without cops on the street doing proactive policing is not good, and cops responding to calls with limited communications is bad and potentially dangerous,” he said.
But the new system is facing even more delays. Hollywood commissioners voted Wednesday to reject the county’s proposed West Lake Park site for a needed radio tower. The county’s end-of-year completion schedule was already blown before the vote, and it’s not known how much additional delay the Hollywood situation will cause.
Gualtieri said the tower problem could be minor compared with overcoming the inability of the county and the different police and fire agencies to talk to each other and come up with solutions for how the system will be operated. “Everybody’s just fighting with each other,” he said.
He said a switch to the Sheriff’s Office could be the answer.
The county owns and maintains the system, and the Sheriff’s Office staffs it. The responsibility for replacing the system has rested with the county, which appropriated the money but has not been able to get the job done. The system serves 29 of 31 cities in the county for police, firefighters and paramedics.
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“We may have stumbled onto the one thing that works less well than the Broward County school district today,” said Ryan Petty, a commission member whose daughter Alaina, 14, was killed at the Parkland school.
Undersheriff Sean Zukowsky said Sheriff Greg Tony is amenable to taking over the system and creating a board of police and fire chiefs that would have a voting say in operational matters.
But County Administrator Bertha Henry said she was against any transfer and doesn’t think the Sheriff’s Office has the staff to do the job.
“If I’m being asked today if I would recommend to the county commission that this function be transferred over to BSO, the answer is no, I cannot,” Henry said.
Members of the state commission were upset that no one in the county appeared to be talking with each other. Henry promised she would meet with Tony, police and fire chiefs, and others before the commission’s August meeting to see whether some path forward can be found.
Henry admitted to rambling as she tried to defend the county against the criticisms leveled at it throughout the day, trying to put historical perspective on issues she said she has been dealing with for more than 20 years.
Several commissioners see the transfer as the only viable alternative to get past the current dysfunction.
“I’m skeptical that improvements can be made at this point without a fresh start,” said Douglas Dodd, a member of the Citrus County School Board and a member of the commission. “It’s already been 16 months since the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with no real radio communications solutions. I think it’s time for a change.”
One MSD commissioner, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, suggested hauling in all nine county commissioners at the August meeting to answer how they plan to fix the system.
“You may not believe it’s broken, but it is broken,” Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, a member of the commission, told Henry. “It broke in the airport incident, it broke in the Parkland incident, and it just broke here weeks ago. … And the fear at least from this commission is it’s going to happen again, in the next mass killing.”
In supporting a switch of the system to the Sheriff’s Office, Tony Rosa said the police chiefs did have reservations about giving more control to the sheriff, but they think it’s better for the system to be run by people who understand the needs of law enforcement and not technocrats guided by statistics.
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Petty said the individual agencies need a larger say in the management of the radio system.
“I look at you as the customer in this,” Petty said. “What you need to do your job should be at the top of the priority list for the county.”
The county consolidated its regional communications system in 2014, with the Sheriff’s Office and all cities except Coral Springs and Plantation participating. Gualtieri said instead of moving toward greater consolidation, the system is starting to fray.
Margate and Coconut Creek are now planning to leave the system, Margate Police Chief Jonathan Shaw told the commission.
The system isn’t just old. It’s also overloaded with too much non-emergency communications. School district bus drivers are still on the radio system, although they are expected to be on a separate local government radio system when classes resume in August.
County officials say the total cost of the new radio system is $80 million and part of a $335 million overall county investment since the consolidation of Emergency 911 into a regional system in 2014.
“Every day that this system is not replaced, there [are] public safety and officer safety issues here in Broward,” Gualtieri said.