Dispatcher mistakes with new 911 system rock Fla. county
Transition has resulted in units to the wrong address, calls wrongly classified and a delay because "the headset was not properly plugged into the jack"
By Brittany Wallman
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Four weeks after adding Fort Lauderdale to the new, countywide 911 emergency dispatch system, county officials are investigating a series of dispatcher mistakes.
Top city and county officials concede that the Aug. 1 addition of Fort Lauderdale's 911 system — one of Broward County's busiest call centers — was the rockiest yet.
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry and her director of the new system, Rick Carpani, said they don't believe the mistakes caused any deaths. They're still unearthing details, said they're taking complaints about dispatch delays seriously, and giving call-takers remedial training. They plan to convene a meeting of fire chiefs immediately, to hash out the problems.
"I think it's time for us to have a conversation with the fire-rescue community so we can talk about these issues," Henry said. "I don't want to dismiss their concerns, because if it's reality for them, it's reality."
Fort Lauderdale dispatchers had to adapt to an entirely different computer system in Sunrise, fielding calls about suicide, fires, car crashes and heart attacks on software on which they'd been trained, but were still new to.
The result was a difficult period. County records confirm that errors were made, and 911 operators required re-training. Units have raced to the wrong address, or to the correct address but in the wrong city. Calls have been wrongly classified by dispatchers, and one operator didn't answer a fire official's call for 10 minutes because "the headset was not properly connected and plugged into the jack," county records say.
Internal documents, emails and interviews illustrate the difficulties that have arisen just in the past three weeks:
• The same address exists in multiple cities, and 911 callers don't necessarily know which municipality they're in. An Aug. 11 call was dispatched to the wrong city, for instance, because the address was valid for both Pompano Beach and Wilton Manors. The response time was 24 minutes. The county blamed "operator error" and re-trained the probationary 911 call-taker.
• Operators using the new system, which relies on entering multiple commands rather than the "point and click" software they were used to, have entered addresses incorrectly. In one case, a fire and stabbing in which the victim reportedly died, the dispatcher left a digit off the address. That was a mistake, county officials admit. But a second call came 40 seconds later, with the correct address, so the delay was minimal, the county's review showed. In another case, the operator entered the wrong address, placing it in the wrong city and causing at least a 10-minute delay in response. Remedial training was given.
• An emergency vehicle was delayed at least eight minutes on Aug. 1 because after being dispatched to a call, the truck was taken out of service by a Fort Lauderdale battalion chief for a special detail. Alphonso Jefferson, Henry's assistant, cites that example as proof that both sides have improvements to make. Remedial training was provided to Fort Lauderdale about the protocol for removing a truck from service.
• Family and friends of a man who died at Mills Pond Park alleged emergency responders took at least 20 minutes to arrive, even though the fire station is situated just outside the park. Major Davis said his friend Norman Travis had a heart attack and collapsed on Davis' lap. The dispatcher "didn't act like she knew where the park was," he said. Paramedics arrived 22 to 25 minutes later, telling them there'd been a dispatch delay. Travis' nephew, Bernard Williams, offered the Sun Sentinel a similar account. "He died right there when I was holding him. I seen him take his last breath, and they still hadn't got there yet," he said. But county records showed only a five-minute response time — one of many cases where Carpani said buzz from paramedics did not match the facts.
Carpani said his review of 38 complaints showed 22 were deemed "no issue," and the county took responsibility where warranted. They're still looking into other reports of mistakes and problems with the new regional system.
But he pointed out that he can't contrast the series of mistakes against any dispatch errors Fort Lauderdale made while it ran its own center; the city didn't provide requested data.
He also said the dispatch center has met its target of answering calls within 10 seconds and dispatching within 90 seconds in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Under the old system, delays were rampant, Carpani said. With 80 percent of the 4 million calls a year coming via cellphones, callers were routinely reaching the wrong dispatch center and transferred to a different one.
Under the new system, paid for with a county tax increase last year, calls will be handled in just three dispatch centers, in Sunrise, Pembroke Pines and Coconut Creek.
Carpani said he was braced for trouble, after receiving a warning email just prior to the Aug. 1 transfer.
In the email, Lisa Zarazinski, the regional communications director for the Broward Sheriff's Office, passed on what she'd heard from another employee. That person said a Fort Lauderdale fireman told her "the firemen are going to give dispatch a hard time ..."
The Fort Lauderdale firefighter union publicly criticized the new system Monday, sending a letter to city commissioners saying that there had been "severe delays" that "could have adversely affected patient care, thus creating the possibility that our delay contributed to the death of a citizen."
Though Fort Lauderdale dispatchers did not lose their jobs, Union President Scott Bayne said his group opposed giving up their own system. He said the county's software is a technological step backward.
In a memo dated Friday, Carpani called Fort Lauderdale's allegations "harmful to the community, not based on fact and not supported by the evidence."
Internal emails show Fort Lauderdale firefighters' concerns were shared by Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman, who wrote to Henry several times about delays.
"They acknowledged that mistakes were made," Feldman said Friday. "I'm confident that the county understands the issues and is working rapidly to resolve them."
Henry said she's eager to vet reports of errors, particularly suggestions that delays led to deaths.
"If it's true, we've got to own it. If it's not true, we've got to stop them from saying it," she said. "It sends the wrong message to the public."
Before Fort Lauderdale's dispatchers moved to the new system, dispatchers in northern Broward, in Sunrise and in Pembroke Pines had already joined. Between now and Oct. 1, the Broward Sheriff's Office territories and Hollywood will join, completing the system. Only Coral Springs and Plantation refused.
Broward Commissioner Lois Wexler said the county should have had a better system in place to accept and investigate complaints about dispatch troubles, including from citizens. The complaint system right now is "informal," she said, and "that's unacceptable."
"We are going to fix this," Wexler said. "I'm grateful it's being brought out in the public."
©2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)