Miami Beach 911 changes highlight shortage of dispatchers

The Miami Beach emergency call center workers appeared to be fast asleep on the job.

Pictures caught the dispatch supervisors sitting in their chairs, heads lolled, eyes squeezed shut.

Embarrassing news coverage of the photos prompted Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales to swiftly yank control of the Public Safety Communications Unit from the police department and hand it to Charles Tear, the city’s new emergency manager — and a civilian.

The move, announced Jan. 30, has brought to the forefront a critical problem: that Miami Beach’s 911 center — the front lines of handling emergencies in the city — is chronically understaffed.

It has also exposed a rift between City Hall and the Fraternal Order of Police union — and possibly ran afoul of federal policy.

Under FBI rules, only a “criminal justice agency” can control access to sensitive law-enforcement databases that officers need to do their jobs. With Tear heading the call center, it’s not a “criminal justice agency” in charge.

Still, for two weeks after Tear was put in charge of the call center, employees continued to access criminal databases.

“It is a compliance issue, and anytime an agency is out of compliance, we begin working with them to address and fix the issue,” wrote Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger in an email to the Miami Herald.

The city and has since worked out an agreement that returns control of the databases to Police Chief Raymond Martinez. But the overall administration of the 911 call center will remain with Tear.

Martinez said the city manager is likely to sign the agreement Monday, bringing the department back into compliance.

“It shouldn’t have any impact as far as being able to run checks and being able to get the information [police] need,” Martinez said.

He added: “This is the manager’s decision and a lot of jurisdictions are moving toward this model.”

Still, the issue has forced Miami Beach to focus on a long-running problem: that the emergency call center has been understaffed for years — a decade, according to the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents employees in that department. The result is forced overtime for a job that can be mentally and emotionally grueling.

Instead of going home between long shifts, sometimes the employees doze off at work.

Someone sent photos of sleeping dispatch supervisors to WPLG Channel 10 News, which ran a story on the issue on Jan 30.

Police say the employees pictured weren’t necessarily asleep on the job.

“They very well could be on break,” Martinez said. “The pictures don’t paint a good image but at the same time it’s very difficult to ascertain what was going on at that point in time.”

Police spokesman Sgt. Bobby Hernandez said the people in the pictures “were counseled not to sleep in the main area because it appears like they were sleeping on the job. ... And since then, we’ve built a break room where they can rest.”

Morales has only been city manager since April 2013, but in a memo to commissioners, he said that the 911 call center was identified as an “area of concern” not long after taking over at City Hall. As city manager, Morales is ultimately responsible for oversight of the police department.

The city seemed to take action quickly after Morales became manager, allocating money for seven new dispatcher positions in the current budget year. The move was expected to cost $157,000, but would offset almost $400,000 the department was spending on overtime.

But the positions went unfilled, as has a director position for the communications unit. The budget year began in October.

Morales did not respond to requests for comment.

Tear, who now heads the unit, says he’s met with the city’s Human Resources Department, which has agreed to expedite the hiring process any way it can. In fact, he’s asked to double the amount of new hires for the call center so he has a reserve. Still, it can take a year before new employees complete training and start on the job.

The city also agreed during union negotiations to more evenly distribute forced overtime so that it no longer falls on the most junior employees, who would burn out the quickest because of the tough work environment.

Smoothing out relations between police and City Hall, however, may take some more time.

Alex Bello, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police, has blasted Morales’ decision to turn over control of the 911 center.

In an email to the city manager, Bello called the decision “arbitrary” and said that the FOP “should have had some input” when considering the changes.

Bello said the police department is taking the fall for the city’s inaction when it comes to making critical hires in the communications unit.

“They kept on taking command staff positions. They took away supervisors,” Bello said in an interview. “It failed.”

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