Flawed 911 system ‘absolutely’ affected response to Parkland shooting

A law enforcement officer rushes toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.
A law enforcement officer rushes toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Sun Sentinel

As a gunman stalked the hallways of their high school, panicked students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School dialed 911 in hopes of a speedy police response.

But those calls, all made on cellphones, were not immediately delivered to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the agency that is contractually obligated to provide police support to the city of Parkland.

Instead, call takers employed by the city of Coral Springs answered the phones at their independent call center, one of two in the county not affiliated with the regional call center, and relayed the information to call takers working with Broward County’s regional 911 system. BSO dispatchers were then supposed to pass on information to deputies. But BSO dispatch did not deliver the most crucial piece of intelligence — the exact location of the shooting within Stoneman Douglas' sizable campus — to deputies.

"Every cell call, it went to Coral Springs. … There was a call transfer situation in place, and I do believe as we flesh this out, it is going to show that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office had a void of information because they were not getting the firsthand calls that were being made from Stoneman Douglas," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the state safety commission tasked with investigating the Feb. 14 shooting.

"So you had people who were conveying firsthand information to the entity that wasn’t the first responder for law enforcement. So what was happening was that Coral Springs would have been required to transfer the callers from the Coral Springs communications center to the regional communications center so the regional communications center could then convey it to the deputies. Was that a factor in this? Yeah, absolutely it’s a factor."

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On Wednesday, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission probed the bifurcated 911 system that exists in the county, with all but two cities — Coral Springs and Plantation — integrated into the Broward Regional Communications System. The lack of uniformity means that callers seeking emergency help may sometimes wait an average of 30 seconds as call takers from the county or from the two independent call centers transfer the call to the appropriate channel.

In Parkland, which does not have a fire or police department, residents rely on both the Coral Springs Fire Department and the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Following the shooting, in which 17 students and staff members were killed and the law enforcement response has been roundly criticized, Coral Springs’ unwillingness to consolidate its call center with the county was seen as a mistake by officials appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran to look into the shooting.

"You’ve got a delay in the police agency, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, who is right there who is the primarily responding law enforcement agency, that is not getting the information as timely as they would or should had it come in to their communications center," Gualtieri said. "Nik Cruz was in Stoneman Douglas for six minutes. Thirty-four people were shot in six minutes. How long is 30 seconds? That’s a long time."

In explaining why Coral Springs chose not to join in when Broward formed its regional system in 2014, representatives of the police and fire departments said the city was concerned about losing autonomy and a "hometown feel," as well as having reservations about the potential organizational structure.

Max Schachter, whose son Alex died in the shooting, said the two-step process was "unacceptable."

Schachter's 14 year old son Alex was killed during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on February 14, 2018.

Still, some information made it through from Coral Springs to BSO.

According to BSO's timeline of events, Coral Springs transferred a call through to BSO soon after the shooting began with crucial information: Someone had been shot in the 1200 building attacked by Cruz.

A BSO dispatcher attempted to relay that information over the radio to deputies responding to the scene. They needed guidance about where to go as students and staff bled out. But the school's resource officer, Deputy Scot Peterson, cut off the transmission. (Peterson would resign after it was shown he took cover during the shooting instead of going into the building.)

The BSO dispatcher did not repeat her message.

Later in Wednesday’s session, the commission focused its attention on the radio issues local law enforcement officers experienced during the Parkland shooting and the new $45 million Motorola system Broward County plans to roll out in the fourth quarter of 2019.

On Feb. 14, sheriff’s deputies experienced a prolonged period of system delays, known as “throttling,” that lasted about five hours and caused confusion among first responders. BSO personnel and Coral Springs officers, who use separate radio systems, could not communicate on a common channel after an attempted patch failed.

Angela Mize, assistant director of BSO’s regional communications, said BSO had no access to Coral Springs’ primary channels and thus could not create a patch. Coral Springs PD, however, did have access to BSO’s channels but failed to patch through, she said.

“We had no ability,” she said.

Since the shooting, Mize said, Coral Springs and the county have agreed to share channels. The commission will speak with representatives of Coral Springs PD on Thursday about the patch issues.

The current radio system is more than 20 years old. The new one, purchased in 2017 following the fatal shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, will provide a 300 percent increase in bandwidth and accept scores more inbound radio requests.

Under the new system, there will be 4,500 fewer local government radio users on the system, which should alleviate any surges the system faces, said Tracy Jackson, Broward County’s director of regional public safety and emergency services. Users will receive additional training to prevent any unnecessary inbound requests that can happen when deputies incessantly flip through channels at the same time.

The current system, which is used by non-public safety officials and law enforcement, 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. The new system, which will be limited to first responders and law enforcement, will handle about 750 requests per minute.

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.

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.

Miami Herald reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.

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.