Audit: Fla. county 911 centers spending millions due to understaffing
Broward County’s 911 centers are spending millions of dollars in overtime — with dispatchers forced to work the extra hours— to make up for continuing vacancies
By Larry Barszewski
BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — Broward County’s emergency 9-1-1 call centers are spending millions of dollars in overtime — with call-takers and dispatchers forced to work the extra hours— to make up for continuing vacancies, a county audit said.
The 447 authorized staffing positions for the three centers in Coconut Creek, Sunrise and Pembroke Pines “are reasonable” to do the job, the audit said, but with an average of 30 slots vacant, workers end up being assigned mandatory overtime shifts to ensure there are enough people on duty to handle the workload and avoid public safety problems.
The audit said if the positions were filled, the county would see an overall cost reduction of about $260,000 annually.
The staffing problem has been around since the county and cities created the regional dispatch system in 2014. All but two of the county’s 31 cities — Coral Springs and Plantation — are part of the county system.
The union representing the dispatchers filed a grievance against the Broward Sheriff’s Office three years ago because of the forced overtime.
Sgt. Anthony Marciano, union representative for the Federation of Public Employees, said the purpose of the grievance was to “light a fire” with the Sheriff’s Office so that it would hire more aggressively. But it didn’t make much of difference, he said.
“We wanted to make sure they were doing every single thing possible to hire additional people,” Marciano said. “We came to the conclusion that they’re doing their best.”
Marciano said it’s a national problem in law enforcement and for 911 dispatchers, with a strong economy reducing the number of potential job candidates for the high-stress positions.
The Sheriff’s Office said it is continuing recruitment efforts designed to “entice and maintain new applicants.” It’s holding an open house from 9 a.m. to noon March 2 at its headquarters, 2601 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. The event is for people — “no experience necessary” — interested in becoming communication operators, law enforcement and corrections deputies, firefighter/paramedics and child protective investigators.
While officials said the workers on overtime are still able to perform well, the union has said the mandatory overtime can disrupt home lives, lead to work dissatisfaction and create higher turnover rates.
The dispatch centers are owned by the county, which pays the Sheriff’s Office to operate them. The audit concluded that the charges in the $42.2 million budget in 2017 were for “actual costs incurred.” The budget rose to $45.1 million this year, which includes money to hire 10 additional employees to reduce the supervisor-to-call-taker ratio.
Overtime costs increased from under $5 million in 2014 to more than $7 million in 2017, the audit said.
Currently, each dispatcher works about 16 hours of mandatory overtime each month and it’s scheduled two months in advance, Marciano said. Then there are days when an unexpected vacancy means someone else is forced at the last minute to work extra hours, he said.
It’s not just vacancies that have to be addressed. Each dispatcher must complete about 20 hours of on-duty training every year, so substitutes are needed to fill those shifts as well.
In addition, new hires spend their first 12 weeks in full-time training and then spend the next 12 weeks working calls and dispatch alongside communication training officers. It’s only at the six-month mark that they go solo, the audit said.
County officials said they will work with the Sheriff’s Office to make sure adequate staffing of the centers is achieved. The county is also working on recommendations from a previous report to improve the efficiency of its call centers.