A year later, Parkland's communications breakdown isn't fixed

Authorities hope to upgrade Broward County radio system by year's end

By Janine Stanwood - Anchor/Reporter

PARKLAND, Fla. - Communications problems plagued first responders the day of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

A year later, recommendations have been made and some additional training has been implemented.

But an upgraded communications system isn't expected to be in place until the end of 2019.

"The radio system in Broward County did not fail," said Tracy Jackson, the new director of Regional Emergency Services and Communications of Broward County.

Jackson is a former Miami firefighter and logistics expert. He told Local 10 the radio system did what it was supposed do when it's inundated by users. It went into a mode called "throttling."

"It went into a self-protected mode," Jackson said. "When the system does that, people trying to access the system will hear a 'bonk' or a 'honk' sound that says the system is busy. The problem is, if you're out there, and you're pressing the button and you don't hear anything, you would press it again. It puts you at the back of the line again."

Jackson said it took approximately 90 minutes for the radio requests to come down to a normal level.

Known problems

The radio system in Broward County began as a single site and transformed into a regional system in 1992.

As early as September 2015, a consultant group hired by Broward County called Mission Critical Partners issued a report warning of "numerous recent failures" and "aging components" in the regional communications system.

More than a year later, communications problems were reported during the shooting at Fort

Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A crush of first responders overwhelmed the aging system.

Feb. 14, 2018

In the panic of one of the worst school shootings in history, some first responders had a tough time connecting.

"Be advised we might be experiencing some radio traffic issues..." one dispatcher could be heard reporting to responding officers.

There was a surge of police and firefighters trying to use the radios.

"The radios cannot keep up with transmissions," said another voice on the radio.

In addition to issues of throttling, Coral Springs, which played a big part in the response, is not on the Broward County regional system.

According to the National Police Foundation interim report, "Emergency communications personnel in Coral Springs could not dispatch BSO deputies and their colleagues in the BSO could not assign fire/EMS resources from Coral Springs. Call-takers and dispatchers at their respective emergency communications center were required to manually transfer calls and relay information."

System upgrade

Change is coming.

"Delays are dangerous here, and every day that we're delayed in putting in a new system, there's an issue," said Broward County commissioner Michael Udine.

Udine said a brand-new, $80 million system is in the works.

"Parts are coming in -- towers are being built -- radios are being ordered," he said.

The county's plan is to add six new communications towers to the existing 10, with overlapping coverage, better reception to penetrate South Florida's strongly-built buildings, and redundancy in case a tower goes down.

One tower site in Hollywood has yet to be selected, but Udine and Jackson are still hopeful the system upgrade will happen as scheduled.

In the meantime, Jackson said some law enforcement officers have attended training to better learn how to use the radios more efficiently. 

"I think there's increased awareness of how the system actually functions," Jackson said.

He also said the county is in the process of moving non-public-safety users off the system to free up space.

Agencies respond

Veda Coleman-Wright, a spokesperson for the Broward Sheriff's Office, said the issues with the radio system are more about capacity than training.

"It is imperative to note that in regard to the radio communications, there is an issue of capacity," Coleman-Wright wrote in part to Local 10. “BSO does not exclusively utilize the Broward County system. Other municipalities such as Miramar, Sunrise, Hallandale Beach and Pembroke Pines are also on this system.

Additionally, there are approximately 4,100 non-public safety users on the Broward County Regional Communications System. As a result, for all regular users, communication will be a problem in a critical incident anywhere in the county that requires mutual aid and additional law enforcement resources to access the radio system to communicate with the impacted city."

Deputy Chief Shawn Backer, who oversees the communications division at Coral Springs police, said the department is working on better collaboration with the county. 

In a statement to Local 10, he wrote in part: "After careful consideration we determined that the best solution for the citizens and all parties involved was to procure our own version of Motorola's PremierOne CAD, which is the same CAD the County operates, and interface with the County's. This will allow for the reduction of 9-1-1 transfers during high priority, life threatening incidents to initiate an emergency response, thereby providing effective first responder services to all the citizens of Broward County."

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