Embattled 911 workers could get immediate raises as Broward commissioners grapple for fixes

Voicing grave concerns about Broward’s emergency 911 system, county commissioners Tuesday said they’ll consider giving immediate pay raises to embattled call-takers and dispatchers.

But they said that’s just the beginning of reforms that will be needed to ensure the public is safe.

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“The system is not working,” Broward Mayor Michael Udine said. “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the second public airing at the County Commission of an emergency 911 crisis exposed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel two-and-a-half weeks ago. The Sun Sentinel reported that scores of calls go unanswered by 911 officials because the communications centers, run by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, are grossly 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 baby, 2-month-old Keishawn Johnson Jr., died. Also, workers who are hired and trained quickly resign, the Sun Sentinel reported Saturday.

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At Tuesday’s meeting, voices were raised and tempers flared. Emergency 911 workers sat in the audience, listening to a litany of problems at their workplace: poor morale, low pay compared to other employers, hostile working conditions, insufficient attention to their mental health, and dozens of vacancies.

For procedural reasons, commissioners couldn’t vote on raises Tuesday, though they informally agreed it’s necessary to keep employees from quitting. Commissioners directed county staff to bring a proposal to their next meeting, May 24, to increase 911 communications worker salaries immediately, at a cost of $4.75 million.

“I don’t think we can wait until October,” Commissioner Jared Moskowitz said, referencing the start of the next budget year. “I think we have to stop the leaking from the bucket. I think we’re all on notice.”

Commissioner Mark Bogen said the county’s contract with BSO to run the system should be yanked. The county could find an experienced leader to run it, and fire BSO for its failures.

His proposal ignited a fiery shouting response from Sheriff Gregory Tony, their exchange punctuated by Udine’s slamming of the gavel. But several commissioners, including Commissioner Lamar Fisher, said they were interested in exploring Bogen’s proposal.

“We’re the checkbook here … You have problems with your management,” Bogen said.

Shot back Tony: “How many doors have you kicked down, how many lives have you saved … or put your ass on the line?”

Tony had a different concept for the agency — it’s the county that he wants removed from the picture.

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“The county should give over the full custody” of 911, Tony said, and “get communications back in this office entirely.”

Udine said the current setup is failing, and suggested a new charter officer — a person reporting directly to the County Commission — might be a solution. It would require voter approval. He said the 911 system probably should be run entirely by BSO, or entirely by the county — not the current mashup of the two.

“There are too many chefs in the kitchen,” he said.

County commissioners criticized the sheriff’s lack of transparency on what they see as an urgent problem.

“Up until April 26, the house wasn’t on fire here,” Mayor Udine said, referencing the date the Sun Sentinel investigation was discussed by the County Commission.

Tony, whose office has not disputed the newspaper’s findings, said the stories were intended to “invoke fear.”

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When Tony submitted his proposed budget for the coming spending year, he made no mention of the growing problems. His budget, dated April 29, 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, and no increase in the number of employees.

The budget suggested that Tony had no intention of reporting the problems to the county or of asking for money for solutions, Udine said.

Now the sheriff is asking for more than $28 million in help from the county. His new proposal calls for $17 million to build a unified 911 call center at BSO headquarters — rather than renting space from cities. He also called for $11.4 million in increased salaries to bring the pay above Palm Beach County’s 911 system workers.

The current pay range in Broward is $37,947 to $72,095. In Palm Beach County, it’s $51,288 to $90,996.

In addition, the sheriff is asking for an additional 86 workers, for a total of 534, to take 911 calls and dispatch emergency workers. No cost estimate for those employees was provided.

To raise salaries just for the rest of this budget year would cost about $4.75 million, officials said.

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“I think the salary increases are justified,” Commissioner Beam Furr said, suggesting the money is likely already sitting unused in the BSO budget. “I think they make sense.”

“We don’t have another six months to kick this one around,” Commissioner Tim Ryan said. “It’s really starting from just a little simmer to a full fledged fire here.”

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash. Brittany Wallman can be reached at bwallman@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4541. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyWallman