Fla. county drops closest-unit response system
Dispatchers would send the ambulance or fire truck that would arrive the quickest, a computer calculation based on mapping and the use of automatic vehicle location devices
By Brittany Wallman
BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — Years after Broward voters demanded that the closest ambulance or fire truck rush to their emergencies, it's not happening. Emergency responders still stop at their city's borders.
A few cities have neighborly agreements to cross boundaries, but the countywide "closest unit response" that's been a goal for more than 14 years still hasn't been accomplished.
Progress was suspended two years ago, and city and county officials are at a standstill, each side insisting it's waiting on the other. In addition, some city officials said they're worried they'd end up subsidizing the city next door.
But Broward fire chiefs, some city mayors and top county officials say it's time to get past obstacles and put in place the system that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2002.
"When you're having a cardiac episode or bleeding out on your kitchen floor, you don't care which city's patch is on the paramedic's uniform," Tamarac Mayor Harry Dressler said in an email.
"The sooner we get a competent professional to you, the better your chance of survival," he said. "Saving lives is what it's all about. Giving people a chance to live is what matters."
The closest-unit response system would be blind to the 31 municipal boundaries, focused instead on getting help to 911 callers in the fastest way possible. An ambulance in Davie could rescue an accident victim in Plantation. A fire truck in Oakland Park could rush to a blaze in Wilton Manors.
Neighboring cities would cross borders for serious medical or fire calls, like a heart attack, or a car accident, or a fire, but not for police work, like a burglary.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel is asking for an additional $2.3 million for operations of the 911 dispatch system, the latest in an ongoing tug-of-war between the sheriff and county.
Dispatchers would send the ambulance or fire truck that would arrive the quickest, a computer calculation based on mapping and the use of automatic vehicle location devices, said Sunrise Fire Chief Thomas DiBernardo, president of the Fire Chief's Association of Broward County.
The aid would be automatic, and frequent. Currently, cities help one another on major incidents, under what's called "mutual aid" agreements. Mutual aid was used in the recent shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Many Broward cities sent help to the airport, DiBernardo said.
A recently released assessment of the county's 911 dispatching by outside consultant Fitch and Associates said the system is capable of carrying out an automatic aid system.
It said consolidation of 911 dispatch — under which separate, city-run dispatching was merged two years ago into one countywide operation — was done in part to achieve the closest-unit response system voters wanted. Only Coral Springs and Plantation remain outside the new countywide system.
"With the recent consolidation, Broward County is able to provide for closest unit response," the December report says. "However, fire-rescue agencies have not yet adopted the necessary protocols, and therefore the County and [Broward Sheriff's Office] are unable to implement this system."
DiBernardo disputed that, saying the protocols "are clearly in place" already. He said the transition to closest unit response will be easier now that dispatch is centralized, and a new, $4.2 million dispatch software system is coming in mid-March.
A 2002 county charter amendment required the county to "provide funding for the communications infrastructure ... [that] shall facilitate closest unit response for life-threatening emergencies."
Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson said the county spent untold millions buying equipment to fulfill the requirement and has tried to shepherd cities to the finish line.
"The county has invested millions of dollars to do it," Jefferson said. "If there is the will, let's get it done."
But the transition hasn't proven easy. The cities and county don't always work well together. Both sides dispute the reason for delay, and the path to getting it done.
"I think it's caught up in a bureaucratic mess," said DiBernardo.
Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan said progress came to a standstill in 2014, when the county pulled the plug on a five-city test of the system.
Jefferson said dispatchers needed time to learn the new countywide dispatching. He said now the county's waiting for fire chiefs and cities to approve a countywide plan, and for each city to forge individual agreements with neighboring cities.
"The county is not the obstacle to getting this done," said Jefferson.
Ryan said a countywide plan shouldn't be necessary, and he's been pushing for piecemeal adoption for two years, internal emails show.
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said one problem is that the charter wording didn't actually require the county to put the system in place, only to pay for the infrastructure to "facilitate it."
"It's not mandated," she said. "It's somewhat voluntary."
The concept has raised questions among some city officials, who fear they'd end up paying for the city next door. Some cities have fire stations near another city's boundary.
"If we responded to closest unit, our firefighters would be out of the city more hours than in the city," Plantation Mayor Diane Veltri-Bendekovic said.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said the concept is great but will only work when cities are "comfortable that every participating department maintains the highest quality service and response" and that service would be consistent and of an "equal level."
Natasha Hampton, Miramar city spokeswoman, said the neighborly aid "wouldn't be something that would benefit us."
The city can handle its owns calls, she said, because its fire five stations are positioned along the transportation spine, Miramar Parkway.
Ryan says an experiment among five cities showed it can be a success.
From 2012 to 2014, he said, Sunrise, Tamarac, Davie, North Lauderdale and Lauderhill provided aid to each other, using vehicle locators to find the closest unit.
The five are still aiding each other, Ryan said, but using a less accurate system, after the county disabled the use of automatic vehicle locators for the automatic aid in 2014.
The cities considered the system a success, DiBernardo said, even though it didn't necessarily balance out perfectly in each city. For example, he said, Sunrise helps Davie four times for every time Davie helps Sunrise. But Tamarac helps Sunrise more than vice versa, he said. And Lauderhill helps Tamarac more. So on the larger scale, he said, it works out.
"When does it become too much? That's when the fire chiefs have to sit down and talk," he said. "That's when you're going to have adjust."
Coral Springs Mayor Skip Campbell said cities can't approach it expecting it to balance out perfectly.
"It comes down to public safety and, basically, morality," he said. "There's an old Bible phrase 'Love thy neighbor as you would love thyself.' "
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