Broward County

One city’s reluctance is delaying new emergency radio network, Broward County says

Broward County’s new towers for its improved radio communications for first responders will be 325 feet tall, slightly lower than this 350-foot tower at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Broward Boulevard.
Broward County’s new towers for its improved radio communications for first responders will be 325 feet tall, slightly lower than this 350-foot tower at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Broward Boulevard. Miami Herald file photo

With the deadly Parkland shooting and a highly scrutinized police response serving as a grim backdrop of sorts, Broward County and the city of Tamarac are now publicly at odds over the delayed launch of the county’s new emergency radio system.

The county, which hopes to roll out the system by late next year, says it’s moving as “expeditiously” as possible. So far, it has secured agreements with cities throughout Broward to establish 16 of 17 radio towers.

The one holdout: Tamarac, which is negotiating logistics for a potential tower site with the county.

While the two parties have been in a deadlock for more than a year, it turned personal and public Thursday during a meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which has been tasked with investigating the shooting and providing recommendations moving forward. The public meeting took place at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Among the most discussed issues related to the shooting was the unsettling discovery that Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies responding to the high school, where a gunman killed 17 students and staff members, could not communicate effectively due to an overloaded radio system.

“We need that system up as soon as possible,” said Max Schachter, a member of the state-appointed commission and the father of Alex Schachter, a young student who died in the shooting.

After expressing her commitment to establishing a more robust radio system, Bertha Henry, the county administrator in Broward, said in her testimony that Tamarac’s reservations were lodged in vanity over the height of the proposed radio tower, a barb the city denied was true. The proposed tower would be 325 feet tall.

“Ultimately, they have some concerns about the height of the towers in their community,” Henry said. “I think we’re all committed to public safety. You can have an unsightly tower or you can have some real communications gaps.”

Seven new towers are planned for Parkland, Tamarac and other locations, the Sun Sentinel reported.

By the end of her testimony, Schachter motioned for the commission to send a letter to Tamarac encouraging them to reach an agreement with the county. Ryan Petty, a member of the commission and the father of Alaina Petty, who was killed at the high school, seconded the motion.

“Please remind Tamarac that graves are six feet deep,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who also sits on the commission. “We’re not really concerned about the height of the tower if we’re saving lives. We need a sense of urgency.”

Elise Boston, a Tamarac spokeswoman, said the county’s characterization of the negotiations was wrong and amounted to “finger-pointing.”

She stressed the city’s commitment to public safety, noting that one of the victims of the Parkland shooting had lived in Tamarac, and said the city had proposed building the tower at the site of an existing radio tower but that Broward refused.

“In fact, we offered them a site at least six months before the tragedy at MSD. There has never been a question about the need,” Boston said in a statement issued to the Miami Herald. “We offered the county the site where the current [radio] towers exist with only one condition: that this new tower also co-locate existing equipment. The county administrator rejected this option out of hand.”

Boston went on to say that it is necessary to “do everything possible to ensure this never happens again.”

On Feb. 14, the day of the shooting, Broward’s radio system became overwhelmed with inbound requests and began to lag. The breakdown “absolutely” affected the police response, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the safety commission.

The new system, which will be limited to first responders and law enforcement, will handle about 750 requests per minute.

The current system, which is more than 20 years old and used by government officials and county law enforcement alike, can handle about 250 inbound requests per minute. Go beyond that for more than a few moments, and you’ll notice a delay in inbound calls.

At 2:20 p.m. on the day of the shooting, analysts documented, there were about 100 inbound requests in the county. Ten minutes later, that surged to about 700, which overloaded the radio system.

If the new system were in place during the shooting, throttling “probably would not have happened because the threshold of throttling would have been much higher,” said Daniel Sanchez, a Florida-based executive for Motorola who addressed the commission.

“That’s why we can’t understand the county’s unwillingness to work together to move this project forward,” said Boston, the Tamarac spokeswoman. “It’s time for the finger-pointing to stop and cooperation to begin.”

In a June 2018 meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission, a state-created group charged with making Florida schools safer in light of the Parkland shooting, members grilled Broward County on its controversial PROMISE program.