The Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida recently told county commissioners it is undergoing a recruitment and retention crisis that has rendered it unable to answer thousands of 9-1-1 calls.
Officials say the agency has 90 vacant communications positions, part of a nationwide shortage of emergency dispatchers.
“We’re going to continue to lose these people,” Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony said. “This will always be a problem here whether we want to admit it or not.”
Tony told Broward County commissioners that the agency does not have the funds to attract new dispatchers or keep current employees from finding more lucrative positions elsewhere, not to mention the effects of the COVID pandemic and high rates of burnout in the profession.
The sheriff’s office’s staffing problems came to light after an investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentineldiscovered thousands of unanswered 9-1-1 calls. The paper found that abandoned calls, meaning calls that are disconnected before they are answered, increased by 26% from 2019 to 2021.
In February this year, the department recorded 14,505 abandoned calls. The sheriff’s office blamed high stress and low pay for the staffing shortage and the inability to answer all calls.
Broward County commissioners believe the problem must be fixed immediately. They urged the sheriff to give dispatchers raises of up to $10,000 to keep them from leaving, or to calculate a dollar amount needed to fill the vacant positions.
“Give everybody a raise … and you won’t lose anybody,” Commissioner Mark Bogen told the sheriff. “You got the money to do that right now without us giving you a penny.”
However, the sheriff was not going to rush into a decision.
“I’m not going to make random or quick decisions that create other problems,” Tony replied, pointing out that the department has to deal with seven different employee unions.
Ultimately, the sheriff’s office and commissioners agreed to hear a presentation from the sheriff at the next County Commission hearing on May 10 to discuss financial relief.
Commissioner Jared Moskowitz said the problem needs an urgent solution. “We’re not built for speed in general, quite frankly,” he said. “I look at this as a real-time problem. Every day matters here. 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 Moskowitz was referring to was the case of a woman whose Hollywood home burned down after police failed to respond to her call. The Sun Sentinel also learned of other tragedies due to unanswered calls, including a man with a medical emergency and a baby who died from not being able to breathe.
Moskowitz suggested amounts such as $200,000 and $500,000 to solve the problem. “If dollars help address this, then let’s just appropriate the dollars.”
Sheriff Tony replied: “We’ll come back with a needs request.”
While it wasn’t entirely clear how the county arrived at such a dire situation, Vice Mayor Lamar Fisher reiterated that it needed an immediate resolution. “Let’s not dance around the issue. I want to give you as much money as you need, Sheriff,” he said. “Every second is a second that you can save a life. We’ve all used 9-1-1. It’s unacceptable that it’s always going to be a problem. It has to be cured.”
Fisher said he hoped the sheriff’s office will get the numbers to the commissioners as soon as possible so additional funding can be approved, even perhaps retroactively in May.