‘It was dead air’: Radio collapse crippled Parkland shooting response

‘It was dead air’: Radio collapse crippled Parkland shooting response

As a sea of deputies descended on Stoneman Douglas High, their hunt for a killer descended into chaos as their antiquated radio system collapsed.

New statements released Friday of police on the ground show in vivid detail how critical the communications failures were as children were injured and dying inside the 1200 building, the school’s freshman building.

“I couldn’t get on the radio myself several times,” Broward Sheriff Office Lt. Steven O’Neill said, telling investigators that commanders resorted to using “people as runners” — cops on bike and on foot — to transmit messages to each other. “Hey go down. Tell those three Coral Springs guys this is where we need ‘em to go,” O’Neill explained. “Because we simply couldn’t transmit on the radio or receive.”

A year earlier, Broward deputies also had experienced serious failures of their radios in the mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where five died but fears of a second shooter led to widespread pandemonium. They were using the same system when a 19-year-old gunman slaughtered 17 staff and students at Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14.

The radios remained in place even though the topic had been on the county commission’s agendas for at least seven years — with high-priced lobbyists pushing to win the multimillion-dollar contract.

In May 2017, four months after the airport shooting, the county finally approved $59.5 million to replace the system, but it is not expected to be ready to use until the end of 2019.

The statements of deputies who responded to the Parkland shooting point to the radios being a key problem in the highly flawed response, including the ability of commanders to coordinate tasks and take control of the situation.

Sgt. Ian Sklar of the K-9 unit arrived at the school and was putting on his bulletproof vest when Capt. Jan Jordan — the person in charge who was widely criticized for her leadership — ran up to him.

“She was holding her radio and she was saying that she was unable to transmit, and she asked to use my radio, asked me for my radio,” Sklar said.

His hand-held radio didn’t work. He went for his in-car radio. It didn’t work either. Jordan jumped into his vehicle and they drove to the north side of the school, nearer the 1200 building, where he was able to get on the radio.

He had “tried numerous times to key up” … “and each time I did, it was dead air.”

Jordan, who has since resigned, told investigators her radio was akin to “a brick.” “Everyone and their cousin was on it,” she said describing a “loud honking noise,” the radio would make as she tried to use it.The county for years has tried to extend the life of its radio system, originally installed in 1992.

There were wild price swings in public presentations over the years and disputes over colossal cellular towers and where to put them.

“Much of the radio infrastructure equipment in use within Broward County is approximately 15 years old, which is past the end of typical replacement periods,” the consulting firm, Mission Critical Partners, wrote in 2015. “Consequently, this equipment already has begun to suffer from higher failure rates and the risk of obsolescence.”

The consultant warned that serious coverage problems existed around the county, particularly in dense areas with highrises along the coast, hospitals — and school buildings.

Sgt. Greg Molamphy, a 25-year-veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, told investigators that the agency’s radios historically don’t work in the schools in Parkland. “In all the schools, I’ve had problems transmitting.”

In fact, as deputies made their way through Stoneman Douglas they described mass hysteria, screaming and an inability to communicate on the radio.

Coral Springs officers, who were on a newer radio system, had information relayed to them by school officials from security video that the gunman was still inside — which turned out to be false. The video was on a delay.

“It’s bad info! It’s bad info,” a Coral Springs officer yelled at a deputy running up to the building.

A member of the sheriff’s fugitive squad went inside the school and could hear the radios of other departments, but the Broward Sheriff’s Office radios were not working.

A Tamarac deputy said his radio was quiet, but he stood next to a Coral Springs officer and got a constant flow of information that way.

Broward Sgt. Richard Rossman said he initially tried to patch the department’s radios to Coral Springs’ so they could communicate.

“The radios were a mess.”

“I wanted to talk to Coral Springs directly. You know, them working off of things and hearing things and then the information coming second and third hand and vice versa. And also the school board had their internal radios. So I’m trying to listen and monitor three different forms of communication under a mass casualty incident. High stress.”

Rossman interviewed school security monitor Andrew Medina at the scene. Medina had witnessed the shooter, who he referred to as “crazy boy,” exit an Uber and walk into the school carrying a rifle bag.

Rossman got on the radio to issue a be-on-the-lookout alert for shooter Nikolas Cruz, based on the description Medina gave.

“I tried to get on. … I can’t get on the radio. Can’t get on the radio.”

Finally he was able to issue the alert.

The county’s radio system used by firefighters and police is made up of 28 channels. When a channel reaches its capacity, users are given a busy signal or error message when trying to use the system. The problem is called “throttling.” Deputies repeatedly referred to the system “bonking.”

The statements of police on the scene were taken by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in their review of the law enforcement response to the Parkland shooting, as ordered by the governor.

In addition to the radio malfunctions, Sheriff’s Office dispatchers reported problems trying to communicate with deputies at the school.

“Attention all units, if you can hear me on this radio, be advised the radios are having malfunctions,” an unidentified dispatcher said, according to a radio transmission transcript. “You can hear me but I cannot hear you so standby.”

Samantha Oakley, a newly hired dispatcher, told investigators the system “started crashing” and she was unable to connect with deputies in North Lauderdale, dealing with a separate dangerous incident involving a weapon.

She asked a colleague with a decade’s experience to take over the Parkland situation and she tried to manage routine traffic.

“I finally got the sergeant to get everybody to go to the Bravo channel,” she said. Indira Phanord, a dispatcher for SWAT teams, took over from Oakley and said: “I’m not sure if maybe too many people were talking at the same time or utilizing the radio channel at the same time, but there was a communication breakdown at some point.”

County officials have said that no police radio system is limitless and even a newer system could have had similar problems during a spike in users. But county radios were reported to have complete failures, sometimes multiple times in a day, even during routine events.

“We always have the same issues with the radios,” said Deputy Roberto Valdes, who works in the North Lauderdale district and started with the agency in 2015. “It’s been ongoing since I’ve been here.”

In a June 2015 letter to Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, the Broward CountyChiefs of Police Association complained about outages and static on the radios used by police and fire personnel to communicate with dispatchers.

Wilton Manors Police Chief Paul O’Connell, president of the group, told Henry the weaknesses caused police departments in Davie, Miramar, Pembroke Pines and Sunrise to switch to two-person patrols, and perform a roll call every hour.

“These ongoing problems have been and continue to be a hindrance to officer and public safety,” he wrote.

A fact-finding commission set up by the state to look into the Parkland shooting released a draft report this week that found that “radio throttling was a significant issue” and created “a communications paralysis.”

“The throttling created a delay in communication between responding deputies,” the report states. “Several agencies responded to the school, but throttling issues caused difficulties coordinating response. For instance, SWAT teams in the 1200 building tried to communicate with officers outside the building who had rifles pointed inside the building and they could not hear each other.”

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