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The Critical Link : 911 Calls Increase Along With Cries of Critics Who Say System Is Inadequate

Times Staff Writer

It is a comparatively uneventful Saturday night in the windowless room that is Ventura County’s 911 headquarters.

An 84-year-old woman calls in, horror in her voice because someone is pounding on her front door. An operator keeps her on the line, chatting calmly until a police car arrives several minutes later.

Later, another woman calls, so frightened that she is hyperventilating. Two strangers are yelling, banging on her apartment door and rattling the doorknob. When she leaves the phone for a moment to look through the peephole, her young son tells the operator:

“I’ve got my baseball bat in my hand, and the chair is against the door. They’re after something, I don’t know what.” The operator stays on the line until officers arrive.

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A man calls because the gas cap is missing on his truck and he wants officers to investigate. The call is not viewed as a priority, but information is passed on to the local police department.

These are the routine calls that come into the county’s 911 system at a rate of about 240 a day--too many, some critics claim, for the county to respond to emergencies as efficiently as it should.

In February, Carin Becerra dialed 911 twice as club-wielding youths shattered windows and beat her handicapped son in their home near Simi Valley. On the first call, the phone rang unanswered six times. A few minutes later, her call went unanswered and she hung up after 11 rings. Her claims are verified by Ventura County Sheriff’s Department records.

Finally Got Through

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When she finally was connected, Becerra was told that neighbors had alerted 911 about the attack and that deputies were on the way. Deputies arrived at the foot of her secluded road in about eight minutes. Although they were in contact with Becerra by telephone, they would not come to her house until she escorted them there 45 minutes later. As many as 15 patrol cars spent the time securing the area, according to Cmdr. Bill Wade.

After a one-month investigation, the Sheriff’s Department concluded that 911 calls were unanswered because operators were swamped with calls from Becerra’s neighbors. The department conceded that officers made a mistake by not proceeding to the scene of the attack, which had ended by the time they arrived. Three men were arrested later.

“I had trust and faith in the system and it didn’t work for me,” Becerra, 49, said in an interview. “I have been told by the Sheriff’s Department that the chance of this happening again are one in a million. It has traumatized me a lot. The system failed me. I never for one second believed that I wouldn’t get help on 911.”

Jessie Roybal, whose Camarillo neighborhood has been terrorized by gangs of Skinheads, has also had problems with the system. She said she called 911 three times in one evening last month when she saw gang members outside her house making firebombs. She was so upset that she made a public plea about 911 to the Camarillo City Council.

“It took the police 20 minutes to half an hour to get here,” she said. “If they had responded quicker, they could have prevented the firebombing.” The bombs damaged the lawn of a rival gang member a short distance away, deputies said. A juvenile was arrested.

Officials said the slow response stemmed not from poor communication but from a lack of available patrol cars.

“The Sheriff’s Department has a large area to cover,” said Cmdr. Merwyn Dowd, who is in charge of the county’s 911 system. “It’s not like the city of Ventura. It takes a Ventura police car seven minutes to get from one side of the city to the other.”

But a few critics complain that some blame lies with the 911 system’s needlessly complex structure.

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The Ventura County 911 system serves the unincorporated areas of the county as well as Thousand Oaks, Fillmore, Camarillo, Moorpark and Ojai, which contract with the county for police services.

Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Simi Valley and Santa Paula have their own 911 systems, but do not have their own ambulance services. That means calls about a heart attack victim in Simi Valley or a drowning baby in Ventura must be re-routed to the county’s 911 system after coming in on those communities’ 911 lines, which are answered at their police departments.

‘Too Many 911 Systems’

“My opinion is that there are too many 911 systems in the county,” said Don Pruner, president of Pruner Health Services, a company that provides ambulance and paramedic services in eastern Ventura County. “If we had one 911 center where everything came into it, that would eliminate those extra calls. That’s a better system, but there’s a lot of people who don’t think that way. Each agency likes to keep control, a sort of home rule.”

According to the Sheriff’s Department, 86,035 calls came into the county’s 911 system in 1988.

Should someone call who speaks only Spanish, Cantonese or Vietnamese, the 911 operator can connect instantly to a translator in Sacramento, who will relay the caller’s problem to the operator. The operator can also press a button and hook up with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Poison Control Center in Los Angeles.

The headquarters of the county system is in the Sheriff’s Department inside the County Government Center complex in Ventura. One large windowless room houses six 911 computer consoles--two or more of them staffed at a time--as well as several radio dispatch desks.

The 911 operators, most of them female, and radio dispatchers often work 12-hour shifts, tied by a telephone cord to death, terror, anger and grief. The job has been likened to that of an air traffic controller. Some say it may be more difficult because people who call 911 are often emotional and sometimes hysterical.

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It’s the 911 operator’s job to get correct information from the callers into the computer and transmit it to the radio dispatcher sitting across the aisle, who will alert police, fire or ambulance units.

Emotions Run Gamut

Emotions in the room range from joy, as when a child comes to life after having stopped breathing, to horror, as when a deputy is caught in the line of fire and the dispatcher hears what is happening, unable to help someone she knows. And there are moments of black humor when there is nothing to do but laugh at the irony and futility of life.

“We have to back up each other emotionally,” said Lt. Mike Gullon, the station’s night watch commander. “There is a possibility of a deputy being killed, and the dispatcher is in tears--we are all in tears. It’s a family type of deal down here.”

There is also the tedium of dealing with questions from the public that have nothing to do with emergencies--queries about abandoned vehicles, injured animals, broken leases, late custody checks and traffic conditions.

Once, a skier inquired about ice on the roads to Mammoth, dispatcher Annette Allen recalled. Another motorist wanted directions to Los Angeles International Airport.

Allen, 36, has been an operator and a dispatcher for 16 years, 10 of them answering 911 calls. She has worked for three emergency agencies and is an old hand at dealing with the tragedies and complexities of the 911 system.

During periods of silence on the 911 desk, Allen matter-of-factly talks about a job that has not been blessed with good press lately.

Helped Deliver Baby

Amid tales of heroism, like that of the 911 dispatcher in Orange County who last week talked a pregnant woman through her delivery, disturbing examples of callousness crop up. Last year, a 911 operator in Texas chastised a man for using an obscenity as he was trying to explain his dying mother’s heart attack symptoms. In February, a caller who frantically dialed 911 to report a gang shooting in Newhall was simply advised to “have a nice day.”

“People’s conception of how polite we are is dependent on how busy we are,” Allen said. “Our responsibility is to send out units. But I don’t care what it is coming down the line, it’s never fast enough. But there are only so many police cars, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night.”

As an example, Allen said three cars are assigned to Moorpark in the evening. If there is a fight, or what is called an “in-progress” call, two police cars are sent, leaving one to handle the rest of the calls.

“There are some nights when I’m really cranky and no one wants to talk to me,” she said. “We look at the screen and tell people there isn’t a police car at their home because we don’t have any units available. We’ve been busy taking care of in-progress calls like murders, assaults and burglaries. That doesn’t make them feel any better. People don’t call here because they’re happy. They don’t really care if people are murdering one another.”

However, such considerations are crucial to the machinery at the heart of the 911 system. A complex of electronic devices, the computer-aided dispatcher, translates callers’ telephone numbers into addresses. It also gives radio dispatchers a rundown of the location of all emergency units. And it assigns a priority to each call, although supervisors may override the computer’s judgment and respond to whichever calls they deem most important.

Often Short-Term Job

Dispatchers usually leave their job after three or four years, but Allen said she enjoys what she does.

“This job keeps you on your toes,” she said. “The hours pass quickly.”

A 911 call comes in and the caller hangs up after one ring. Allen walks to a computer printer that records the telephone number of every incoming call. She dials, but the line is busy. She said such calls create “nightmare decisions” for dispatchers because they do not know if the call was an error or a desperate plea.

In most cases, Allen said, 911 operators attempt to call back. If the line remains busy, officers will be sent. A reverse telephone directory tells Allen the address.

On one occasion, Allen said, an elderly woman called 911 but passed out after she dialed, dragging the telephone down with her and disconnecting it. A police car was dispatched. The woman was given emergency treatment and lived.


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