Utility Workers Become Extra Eyes, Ears for Police

Times Staff Writer

Bill Day was on his way home from a long day at the office when he saw a car speeding away from a hit-and-run accident in West Covina. Day, a production manager for Suburban Water Systems in La Puente, radioed in the license number from his company car and set out in pursuit of the racing vehicle.

When the car stopped at a nearby residence, Day got out and persuaded the driver to wait for police.

In an effort to continue such assistance, Suburban Water Systems has begun Radio Watch, a program aimed at using the utility company's 75 radio-equipped vehicles to report crimes and emergencies to police and fire departments.

Although employees of the investor-owned water company have used their radios to report emergencies in the past, Radio Watch is aimed at making the community more aware of the service, said Sandy Warren, communications coordinator for Suburban Water Systems.

"This is basically something we've done in the past," Warren said, adding that the program will cost customers nothing. "We're just trying to formalize this, make the public aware and get even better results than we have."

Similarly, a spokesman for Southern California Gas Co., which serves 28 cities in the San Gabriel Valley, said that utility's drivers also are encouraged to report crimes and emergencies, although no formal program exists.

Suburban Water Systems, a subsidiary of Southwest Water Co., serves 62,500 residences in Glendora, Covina, West Covina, La Puente, Industry, Hacienda Heights, Whittier, La Mirada and La Habra, as well as about 36 square miles of unincorporated county areas.

Drivers will be instructed to report crimes, fires, accidents and any suspicious activity to the utility's dispatcher on their two-way radios. The dispatcher will then contact the appropriate authority, depending on the nature and location of the emergency.

Blue and yellow Radio Watch decals will be posted on the rear side panels of company vehicles, alerting local residents that the driver has access to a two-way radio.

There also will be a decal posted on the inside of all company vehicles, instructing drivers not to get involved personally in potentially dangerous situations.

"This is strictly a reporting responsibility," Warren said, noting that although Day was successful in catching the hit-and-run driver, he would discourage such activity in the future. "We don't want any heroes," Warren said.

He added that law enforcement and fire agencies also have cautioned drivers not to get involved personally, but added that they all have been extremely supportive of the program.

"We think it's excellent," said Cpl. Lori Brock of the West Covina police force's community relations department. "This is an extra set of eyes and ears out in the community."

Brock said that utility drivers have reported traffic accidents and road hazards in the past, but that the formal emphasis on observing criminal activities will give police additional assistance.

"These (drivers) know the neighborhoods," Brock said. "They know the people and they know who belongs and who doesn't--sometimes better than we do."

Warren said that Radio Watch, which is sponsored by the National Assn. of Water Companies in Washington, D.C., is modeled after a similar program in the East.

DELMARVA Power and Light Co., a utility serving parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, logged more than 300 calls to law enforcement authorities in its first year of the program, Warren said.

"We may not reach that number or we may exceed it," Warren said. "But we feel that if the program helps just one person, it will have been worth our time."

He explained that the water company has a steady flow of drivers out on the road at all times, including meter readers, construction crews, maintenance personnel and field service representatives.

"Our drivers will continue to do their normal jobs, whatever they may be," Warren said. "We're just telling them to be on the lookout, because with a radio they have the power to help someone."

He said that details of the program will appear in customers' September water bills.

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