Miami Beach

Miami Beach’s 911 call unit is understaffed and overworked. Will management changes help?

Miami Beach Fire Rescue brings David Patlak, acting as a cardiac arrest patient during a drill, to Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Emergency Room entrance.
Miami Beach Fire Rescue brings David Patlak, acting as a cardiac arrest patient during a drill, to Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Emergency Room entrance. Miami Herald file 2015

The first people responding to emergencies in Miami Beach, the call takers and emergency dispatchers who interpret the words of the 911 caller, say they are overworked, understaffed and worried about making mistakes on the job.

The workers and their supporters say it’s a troubling thought considering the kinds of life-and-death situations these employees encounter on the other end of the telephone line, from drownings to heart attacks to people armed with guns.

The Beach’s public safety communications unit, which includes call takers who assess the nature of the calls and dispatchers who relay critical information to emergency responders, is operating with a critically low number of dispatchers who are regularly forced to work overtime. The department has budgeted 27 dispatcher positions, but only 18 of those slots are currently filled. A reorganization three years ago did little good, the workers said.

Problems in the 911 unit are so bad that employee complaints prompted City Manager Jimmy Morales to commission an examination of its operations by the city’s fire chief, Virgil Fernandez. After reviewing a first draft of Fernandez’s report, which is not yet publicly available, Morales announced on Tuesday that the Public Safety Communications Unit will be shifted from the department of emergency management to the fire department on Oct. 1.

Morales complimented emergency management director Charles Tear for stabilizing the unit and making some improvements since 2014, when Morales moved responsibility for it from the police department to the newly-created emergency management department. But that adjustment has not worked in the long run, according to employees and Morales himself.

“There have been some performance issues raised in recent months, however, and I certainly want to make sure our first responders are getting the best support services possible,” Morales wrote.

I certainly want to make sure our first responders are getting the best support services possible.

Jimmy Morales, city manager

Although Morales did not cite specific problems, workers in the unit told the Herald about instances where police officers had to wait for assistance because too few dispatchers were available and others when cops were dispatched to the wrong address.

One example happened in May. A police lieutenant complained of a miscommunication from a dispatcher when cops were called to check on a man walking on the beach with a gun. An internal memo said not all officers were clearly notified the man was armed and that the situation was more than just a routine call.

Although the man was detained without incident, mixups like this create dangerous situations for the public and first responders. Dispatchers who regularly work overtime and special event weekends, with workers required to staff 12-hour shifts, say they are more vulnerable to mistakes.

Even seasoned dispatchers are deeply concerned. Several recently aired their concerns during the public comment period of a City Commission meeting and in emails to the city’s top management.

“We see the situation is declining instead of progressing,” said Joana Christophe, a dispatcher for 7  1/2 years.

Under Tear, a veteran emergency management professional who has worked in Palm Beach and Pasco counties, the new department was supposed to improve the 911 unit and make more hires after images of a supervisor caught sleeping on the job were published in the media.

Of 1,200 applicants, only 17 passed a test and a background check and were eligible for hire.

Emergency dispatch jobs are notoriously hard to fill and maintain. In an email, Tear explained that out of 1,200 applicants for the open positions in the Beach, 212 passed a required test and only 100 of those have completed background checks. Only 17 of those 100 were eligible for hire, and three are currently dispatching. Seven are training.

But little has changed, Rebecca Ramos and other dispatchers told the Herald. The lack of manpower continues to pose a significant threat to public safety, she said, criticizing Tear for not shoring up staffing.

“What happened to the promises you made when you came in?” Ramos said in an interview.

Video captured by a bystander show the moments after a police-involved shooting on Miami Beach left one man dead during Memorial Day Weekend.

The management change will be effective Oct. 1. Fernandez, Tear and Police Chief Dan Oates will work on transitioning the 911 unit to the fire department, where an executive director of the 911 unit will report to both the fire and police chiefs.

“The goal is to make sure that each department gets what it needs from the Public Safety Communications Unit,” Morales wrote. “In the meantime, director Tear can focus on the emergency management function to make sure our city is as ready as possible to mitigate against and recover from natural and manmade disasters.”

But staffers said turnover has been high, with new employees sometimes leaving when they realize how stressful the job is. Training takes a full year.

When asked about what has been done to address staffing problems in the unit, Tear gave a simple answer.

“We have maintained an ongoing recruitment, testing and background process,” he said.

Miami Beach rescuers swam out to a dog that fell in the bay, grabbed it and got it back safely to dry land with the help of a gurney.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech