As 911 calls go unanswered, Fla. sheriff's office struggles to fill 90 open positions

"This will always be a problem here whether we want to admit it or not," said Sheriff Gregory Tony


By Lisa J. Huriash
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — The Broward Sheriff’s Office acknowledged Tuesday it has a recruitment and retention crisis among its 911 call-takers that has left scores of emergency calls unanswered.

Broward County commissioners asked Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony and other members of his agency about concerns with answering 911 calls. The agency said it doesn’t have enough money to attract new dispatchers to fill 90 empty positions, and to keep the dispatchers who are already employed from going elsewhere for more money.

“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.”

In a months-long investigation, the South Florida Sun Sentinel discovered thousands of unanswered 911 calls and talked to desperate callers who never connected with the help they needed. Abandoned calls, which are those that are disconnected before they are answered, increased 26% from 2019 to 2021, the newspaper found. In February, there were 14,505 abandoned calls, according to the county’s reports in the latest month for which statistics are available.

Some Broward County commissioners urged the sheriff to fix its issues “today,” whether it means giving every dispatcher a $10,000 raise to keep them from leaving, or coming up with a dollar amount to fix the problem.

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

“I’m not going to make random or quick decisions that create other problems,” Tony replied.

“With all due respect, I urge you to today, tomorrow, to put those people on par” with other agencies, “you got the money,” Bogen said. “You can stop that problem right this second when you leave here so nobody will leave for other jobs.”

Tony said he wasn’t yet ready: “I don’t make random decisions.”

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“I’m sorry if that doesn’t satisfy you,” Tony told him. “I understand that may not be as fast as you want.”

In the end, the Sheriff’s Office will make a presentation at the next County Commission meeting, scheduled for May 10, to talk about the financial relief the agency needs.

The Sheriff’s Office blamed high stress and pay that isn’t competitive for the reason the agency is understaffed and unable to answer all emergency calls.

“We’re not built for speed in general, quite frankly,” Commissioner Jared Moskowitz said, referring to how county government operates, since items tend to get “put into committee” before anything happens. “I look at this as a real-time problem.”

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

The tragedy that county leaders referred to was a Hollywood woman whose home burned down earlier this month. The leaders did not mention other examples detailed in the Sun Sentinel’s report, including a man with a medical emergency, and a family seeking help for a baby who was turning blue. The baby died.

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

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

Vice Mayor Lamar Fisher also wanted an immediate resolution.

“Let’s not dance around the issue,” Fisher said. “I want to give you as much money as you need, Sheriff. Every second is a second that you can save a life. We’ve all used 911. It’s unacceptable that it’s always going to be a problem. It has to be cured.

“I don’t want to wait until the next meeting. I want you to tell me what you need now to correct the problem. Please don’t wait until next meeting. It’s now.”

After the meeting, Fisher said he hoped the sheriff would get numbers to county administration for immediate funding, even if it has to be approved retroactively by the commission in May.

“I hope the administration can accommodate whatever is needed,” he said. “We don’t hear every story. What other stories are there that lives are being lost? We can’t afford that anymore. It’s unacceptable.”

County commissioners were frustrated with some non-answers about how the county got here in the first place.

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

“Yes, there are occasions where we fall short,” 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.

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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