Investigation: Recruits walk off job within months of joining Broward’s troubled 911 call centers

On a good day at the three Broward County regional communication centers, dozens of seats would be filled with 911 call-takers — the first of the first responders. But good days are fleeting. Instead there’s vast emptiness with many uncluttered and unused desks.

Broward County’s 911 system is in crisis. It’s struggling under the weight of an extraordinary volume of calls, more than 2.2 million a year, with nowhere near the number of employees needed to answer them. Without enough workers, the phones just ring.

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It’s easy to see why: Records show that 911 call center staffers in Broward are eyeing the exits almost as soon as they start on the job.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel analyzed hiring, separation and payroll records from the countywide emergency 911 centers, run by the Broward Sheriff’s Office:

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  • From 2019 through 2021, 168 people were hired as communications operators. By the end of last year, the emergency call centers lost 103 of those new hires — about three of every five. Another 17 left in the first four months of 2022.
  • The average tenure of the new hires who left from 2019 through 2021: 202 days, or about 6½ months. Half of them — 52 of the 103 — lasted just four months or less.
  • All told, the centers lost 202 staff members since the beginning of 2019.
  • The pace of the departures is accelerating. In 2021 alone, 76 of those 202 employees left — more departures than any year going back to late 2014, when the countywide system launched. By comparison, 52 employees left in 2019, and 50 in 2020. Another 24 have already resigned, retired or didn’t make it past probation.
  • As of May 4, the regional communication centers are operating with 88 unfilled positions.

Carey Codd, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said emergency call centers always have a tough time hiring and keeping employees, and the pandemic only made that worse.

“Staffing availability continues to decline, while work volume has intensified, and [emergency call centers] often have the most difficulty in maintaining personnel,” he said. “Despite these challenges, [the Sheriff’s Office] is committed to consistently recruiting, hiring, and training” 911 workers.

Late Friday, Broward Sheriff Greg Tony submitted a proposal to the Broward County Commission seeking $28.3 million in increased salaries, more employees, a unified call center and extra recruiting efforts, including hiring bonuses.

During a County Commission meeting on April 26, Sheriff’s Office officials said that operators and dispatchers were heading to Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties in pursuit of better salaries. Tony repeated the claim in a radio interview.

The Sun Sentinel examined separation reports for all 911 call center staff from the beginning of 2019 to the present. The Sheriff’s Office records show that of the 202 employees who left, just 22 reported they were leaving for another job.

Broward County Commissioner Mark Bogen said he’s been speaking to people who worked in the 911 centers. One thing he learned is that dispatchers are forced to handle extra territory due to the vacancies.

“This is horrific. This is just horrific,” he said Friday. “We need to get down to the bottom of this, fast.”

“Pay is an issue,” he said, but “there’s a hostile work environment that starts from training to just normal work. A person has to clock in and clock out when they go the bathroom.”

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Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said he has lost faith in the county’s ability to address the faltering 911 system. But Fort Lauderdale and other cities are at the mercy of the Sheriff’s Office and the county now, Trantalis said, because it would cost millions for a city to restore its own emergency 911 systems.

The county raised taxes to pay for the countywide system, too, so property owners across Broward are paying for it. If a city were to raise taxes for its own system, residents would be double-paying, Trantalis said.

“This is not just something that happened overnight. This has been going on for years. This is not rocket science. … They’re saying they have high turnover — well, pay more, have better working hours, and better working conditions.

“Pay attention. It’s an absolute sin that a person should die because there’s a vacant seat at the end of that phone because we don’t pay more or have better working conditions or hours,” he said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not what government should be.”

A recent South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation exposed the dangers of working without enough staff. Residents who called 911 in emergencies told of listening to endless ringing of phones. A house in Hollywood burned while neighbors raced to a nearby fire station to get help. A Coconut Creek family waited long anxious minutes while a man suffered a diabetic emergency that resulted in a two-day hospital stay. And a Deerfield Beach father rushed his unresponsive baby to a hospital in a friend’s car because multiple calls to 911 went unanswered. The baby died, and the family blames the 911 system.

County commissioners demanded answers at a meeting on April 26, days after the investigation was published, and Sheriff Tony was asked what it would take to fix or at least alleviate the problem.

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Just days after that meeting, Tony submitted a proposed budget for 2022-2023 that made no mention of the growing problems. The April 29 budget said he’d maintain a turnover in emergency 911 staff “below national standards” of 10% — a far cry from the 61% turnover he’s really seen during his tenure. He requested no major changes in the status quo.

After the problems were exposed in the Sun Sentinel investigation and discussed at the County Commission, he submitted a new document late Friday.

In that proposal, he asked for an additional 86 workers, to a total of 534, to take 911 calls and dispatch emergency workers. He also proposed a major pay boost: $11 million in increased salaries so that the lowest level a 911 worker would make would be more than his or her counterpart in Palm Beach County.

The current pay range in Broward is $37,947 to $72,095. In Palm Beach County, it’s $51,288 to $90,996, and in Miami-Dade the starting pay is $42,298. The sheriff proposes raising the Broward pay range to $53,852 for a trainee, to a maximum $96,541 for the most experienced employees.

He also recommends spending $17 million to build a unified emergency call center on the second floor of the Sheriff’s Office headquarters on West Broward Boulevard.

And he’s asking for $314,000 for more recruitment advertising, and hiring incentives. New hires would get a $5,000 bonus, the second half payable when the person has been on staff two full years. Employees referring new hires would get $500.

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The $28.3 million package would be funded by Broward County. The sheriff is expected to present his proposal Tuesday to county commissioners.

The regional system serves some 1.9 million residents in unincorporated Broward County and 29 municipalities. It touts itself as the most expansive 911 communications center in the country. Just two Broward County cities, Coral Springs and Plantation, opted out of the regional plan when it was created in 2014. But Coconut Creek plans to join Coral Springs in October, and other cities are weighing their options to break away from the troubled regional system.

In an interview with WLRN, South Florida’s public radio station, Sheriff Tony acknowledged the large number of vacancies in the communications centers, but said people were leaving for better-paying jobs at other 911 centers to the north and south.

Although a small number of the people who leave say they have another job — since the beginning of 2019, of the 202 employees who left, just 22 stated the reason as other employment — a much larger group simply stated they were leaving for personal reasons.

“It’s back to back to back with no breather,” a seasoned worker said. And when there is a break and the phone lines aren’t jammed? “That just means the calm before the storm to us.”

Every few months recruits come through the regional 911 communication centers’ doors and take empty seats next to training buddies so they can get hands-on experience. In about five to six weeks, these new workers should be good to be on their own.

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“It was bonkers; it didn’t work out good. It was terrible,” said a person who lasted 10 months until giving her two-week notice in 2021.

Like the seasoned employees, this new worker went on medications to try to blunt anxiety and ease depression. After a month when the medications still didn’t do it, the new worker offered their notice.

“It’s a revolving door,” the worker said. “No one stays.”

The staffing issue occurs across the United States, but seems particularly problematic for Broward County’s regional centers.

In Coral Springs, all six of the communication center dispatch and call-taker positions are filled, said Police Chief Brad McKeone. There are five people in the training academy as Coral Springs prepares to provide public safety communications to Coconut Creek starting Oct. 3.

McKeone says the city has hired some former Broward Regional communications operators.

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The money is better in Coral Springs, at $48,600 for people with no experience. That’s about $10,000 higher for people in the same job in Broward’s regional centers, who currently receive $37,947 to start.

McKeone said he doesn’t think money is the only driver in the workers’ decision to cut ties with Broward Regional and move to Coral Springs: “We look at our dispatchers as first responders. [The agency considers their] work environment, the conditions, wellness time, mental health access programs — we know it’s a tough job.”

Like Broward, Plantation is not without staffing problems.

Jason R. Nunemaker, Plantation’s chief administrative officer, said the city currently has 22 communications operator positions budgeted, but only 12 regular full-time employees to do the job though four more people are expected to be hired this month. Nunemaker said the city makes up for the staffing shortage by calling on a pool of 10 part-time people to fill the empty seats when needed.

When it became apparent that staffing challenges may jeopardize timely 911 responses in Broward County, there should have been alarm bells ringing by the Sheriff’s Office and the county, said Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan.

Ryan would like to add another another county charter officer who would oversee the system without the influence of the Sheriff’s Office or the county manager’s office. “We are entitled to transparent reporting and someone who is not beholden to either … to tell the public when there are concerns and what is needed.”

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In Broward, the County Attorney and the Auditor are charter officers. “Certainly 911 performance is no less important than the missions of those existing charter officers,” Ryan said.

Pompano Beach Mayor Rex Hardin said it is sad to have reached this point in the delivery of a core government service — public safety.

“The confidence of the public and elected officials has been shaken by what is happening. I supported the 911 consolidation originally. Now, Pompano Beach is investigating alternatives,” Hardin said.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said it’s “extremely concerning that personnel levels have dropped so low. Lives depend on it!!”

“Understanding that these positions are extremely stressful I am hoping the sheriff takes a long hard look at compensation and daily operations to retain employees,” Cooper said.

In Tamarac, city officials are asking questions, said Mayor Michelle Gomez.

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“We expect a rapid response,” Gomez said. “They have to fix it.” Still, “there isn’t a Band-Aid to make it all better.”

Parkland Mayor Rich Walker said the city has asked questions “and will continue to ask questions.” He said the Sheriff’s Office has assured them they are doing their best to fix the situation. “They’re working on it.”

But he also acknowledged “they did not give any specifics. We’ll absolutely be following up to get a specific plan. Obviously safety is the most important thing.”

Cooper City Mayor Greg Ross said the city has had “one or two examples” of 911 problems; in at least one case, dispatch sent rescuers to the wrong city. Still, “I’m not concerned to the point I’m putting out an all-points bulletin because they’ve assured me they’re working on it. Immediate improvement is needed.”

A former long-time employee who no longer works at the regional county center doesn’t hold much hope that things will change for the better permanently.

“Things are [going to] change to make the cities happy, but it will go back to bad as soon as everyone stops watching,” the retiree said.

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The retiree is making plans to move out of Broward and go to a place where the 911 system can be trusted.

“I’ve been telling a lot of people for a long time,” the retiree said, “don’t move to Broward.”

Eileen Kelley can be reached at 772-925-9193 or ekelley@sunsentinel.com. Follow onTwitter @reporterkell. Brittany Wallman can be reached at bwallman@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4541. Follow her on Twitter @Brittany Wallman. Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash. Spencer Norris can be reached at SNorris@SunSentinel.com, 570-690-3469 or Twitter @norris_report.