FORT LAUDERDALE (CBS4) – There is a major debate underway in Broward County over the way 911 calls are handled and a misdirected emergency call during an attempted attack on a retired couple has several local leaders saying the 911 system needs to be changed.
The call at the center of the latest controversy took place earlier this month in Sunrise.
A retired couple, Jim and Tina Ratcliff, were driving out of a shopping plaza when they say a man who had words with Jim inside a store chased after them in his car.
Tina Ratcliff said the man drove up beside them while wielding some sort of weapon, honking and trying to catch them.
“I decided I better get on the phone and ask for help,” she said.
What happened next is captured on a 911 call that officials say illustrates the problem with misdirected emergency calls and a lack of information sharing between emergency responders.
911 DISPATCHER: 911. What’s your emergency?
Tina Ratcliff calmly described what was happening in Sunrise…
RATCLIFF: They just took a golf club and hit our car with it. They’re in some kind of road rage thing.
But the dispatcher — who was from Plantation — couldn’t figure out where the couple was.
911 DISPATCHER: Ma’am are you in the city of Sunrise?
RATCLIFF: God darnit don’t you know where I’m at? I’m giving you the addresses!
Racliff’s call was then transferred to Sunrise and Ratcliff had to start giving the information all over again.
RATCLIFF: I can’t believe that they wouldn’t have dispatched this and gotten some help to us by now. I’ve been on the phone for 4 minutes.
More than 90 seconds later, as the Ratcliff’s traveled back into Plantation, their call was transferred again.
911 DISPATCHER: Plantation this is Sunrise with a transfer.
By this point, the man chasing the Ratcliff’s backed off. But Tina still couldn’t believe that no one had come to help them.
911 DISPATCHER: Are you pulled over?
RATCLIFF: Yeah. We’re pulled over. I’ve said it 5 times now. Got it?
The Ratcliff’s, who spent a combined 60 years in law enforcement, say it took at least 7 minutes before an officer responded.
“If these agencies can’t communicate with one another how horrible is that?” she told CBS 4’s Carey Codd.
Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan says the Ratcliff’s might have wound up with a small dent on their car but their experience exposed a big problem in Broward County.
“When (the Ratcliff’s) call on a cellphone, they’re in Sunrise,” he explained. “They think they’re talking to Sunrise 911 but they’re not because the tower has directed it to Plantation and that’s what happens all throughout the county.”
Ryan says calling 911 from a cellphone leads to many calls being sent to the wrong agency because of the way cell towers route the call. But Ryan believes an even bigger problem is there’s no consolidated 911 system in Broward where all the calls are answered in centralized locations and information is shared.
In the Ratcliff’s case, the Plantation dispatcher hung up when she transferred the call to Sunrise and didn’t provide any specific information to the Sunrise dispatcher.
Ryan, and many others, including Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler, are trying to make sure what happened to the Ratcliff’s doesn’t happen again.
“When you hear what happened to the Ratcliffs — and God forbid that guy have a gun and that he continued to chase them –that call bounced around too long and that’s a wakeup call for everybody,” Ryan said.
Wexler said she plans to ask her fellow commissioners on February 26 to approve creating a regional 911 system.
“A regional system would make that when the person with an emergency is calling, it goes to one place with uniformity of equipment,” Wexler said. “Everyone should be outraged to think it’s not uniform.”
Complicating the decision, Wexler said, is how to make up for a gap in funding to provide three regional communications centers that would handle emergency calls countywide.
Wexler said it would cost an average of $22 per year on the average property tax bill.
“I think a life is worth that,” she said.
In fact, residents in some cities that have dispatch centers — like Sunrise, Pembroke Pines and Coral Springs — might not see an increase. Ryan says other cities that might not have been paying for 911 service that is provided by the Broward Sheriff’s Office might have to step up funding.
However, Ryan said whether residents are paying their municipality or the county, they will have to pay for the service. He believes the county is best suited to provide 911 emergency services.
“There’s going to be an increase somewhere,” Ryan said. “The idea is can we do this in a way that’s equitable? Can we reduce the cost overall and really reduce the pain to the taxpayers while reducing government?”
The Ratcliff’s believe the system needs to be changed because they say in an emergency every second counts.
“What if your house was burning down?” Tina Ratcliff asked. “And you’re gonna get transferred and argue over jurisdiction? No. It’s not acceptable.”
Jim Ratcliff said residents should feel secure calling 911, knowing that emergency help is right around the corner.
“When you dial 911 you should get a response, it’s a special number,” Jim Ratcliff said. “Supposed to be. It wasn’t a special number for us that day.”