Donations Sought for $200,000 Emergency Van : Escondido Residents Given a ‘Code 99’ Request

Times Staff Writer

In police radio parlance, “Code 99” is a call for assistance from an officer in distress.

The term has been adopted by a group of Escondido community leaders who are convinced that the city’s police and fire departments face critical communications shortcomings that have already hampered emergency operations.

Officials point to last September’s fire at Kit Carson Park as the most recent example of the need for more-sophisticated radio equipment. Police officers and firefighters from more than a dozen jurisdictions who responded to the call for aid found that they had to fight something beside the blaze--an inability to communicate with each other.

The only available mobile command center, an obsolete radio van owned by the county, broke down on its way to the blaze. Setting up their command post miles from the scene, firefighters struggled to coordinate their efforts by using a single radio frequency. The fire eventually scorched 65 acres and caused more than $100,000 in damage.


“In a situation like that, we were fortunate no one was injured,” said Robert Wolford, Escondido’s assistant police chief. “We hope to prevent that type of situation from occurring again.”

Wolford’s plan to forestall a potentially disastrous communications breakdown is for the City of Escondido to obtain a new, state-of-the-art radio communications van. However, the van’s $200,000 price tag is far beyond the city’s means in these times of tight budgets.

An offer of help arrived a month later when City Manager Vernon Hazen was contacted by former City Manager Ken Lounsbery, who heads up “The Code 99 Committee,” a group of 12 business and community leaders who were looking to make a symbolic contribution to the city’s law enforcement efforts.

“We inquired of the city what might be useful for them in a tangible sort of way to show support for local law enforcement,” Lounsbery said. “Although the police always need help with their day-to-day expenses, the group was looking for something a little more eloquent.”

After meeting with Hazen and police and fire officials, the group asked to inspect a van similar to the one the city wanted. The city borrowed a van from the City of Redlands, and the Code 99 Committee decided on its “tangible” purchase.

The group then spoke with the rank-and-file members of the police and fire departments, who emphasize the shortcomings of the county-owned San Diego Fire Department truck currently used during emergencies.


“Every call we’ve had for it, it’s broken down,” said firefighter Steve Gates. “It doesn’t have telephone capability. We can only operate on one frequency at a time.”

Hazen said the proposed mobile command post would be the most advanced of its type, and would be equipped with more than $75,000 in electronics equipment. It could be used not only for natural disasters such as fires and floods (the city’s dispatch center lies in the bottom of the flood plain), but also during riots and hostage situations. Escondido would make the van available to neighboring communities, he said.

Gates said a new communications van would make a “huge difference” in his department’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“It would be on the scene right away,” Gates said. “It wouldn’t take 45 minutes to an hour to get here.”

But while the Code 99 Committee was immediately sold on the communications van, its members were still uncertain whether the community at large was willing to buy it. To test the waters, the group sent letters requesting donations to 2,000 Escondido residents. More than 20% responded by contributing to the fund, netting the committee more than $15,000.

“I’m told that kind of response is very good for that type of ‘cold’ solicitation,” Lounsbery said.


However, the Code 99 Committee is still $185,000 short of its goal. Lounsbery said the next phase of the group’s fund-raising efforts, to be aimed at the city’s business community, will begin with a strategy meeting March 8.

“It’s a little early to predict how the business community will react, because my thermometer has been limited to the committee members, and they’re very enthusiastic, maybe even a little biased,” Lounsbery said.

Lounsbery said the Code 99 Committee will end its fund-raising drive in September. If the group hasn’t raised the money by that time, it will either abandon the effort or ask the City Council to provide matching funds.

“There are two schools of thought on that,” he said. “One is that this ought to come purely from the community. On the other hand, we’re engaged in trying to buy something the city should be willing to buy on a matching fund basis.”

Lounsbery said he is confident the City Council would help out if the group asked for matching funds.

“I have not asked individual council members, but other members of the committee have passed it by some council members in casual conversation,” he said, and “they’re generally supportive.”


Although Hazen said the city’s staff would probably not have requested such an expensive van, he said he believes the City Council would approve matching funds for the purchase. He added that acquisition of a mobile command post has been his “first priority” since he became city manager three years ago.

“A community this size needs a mobile command post,” Hazen said. “The police chief, the fire chief and I have discussed this ever since I came here.

“We’re going to have a major emergency in Escondido. I can’t tell you when, but if it happens and we are as prepared as we were three years ago, we’ll be in big trouble. . . . I’ve seen communities lose dozens of lives because they didn’t know what they were doing.”