Eleven thirty-five on a recent morning. An ambulance is rolling on a call to Leisure World where an elderly woman has squeezed the alarm on her LifeAlert pendant, an emergency signal that she is in trouble.
When paramedics arrive, Sam Krause leads them to a disoriented, 78-year-old woman, slumped in an armchair and suffering from a possible stroke. While paramedics start an intravenous line, Krause jots down vital patient information: name, age, nearest relative, prescribed medication.
After a shot of dextrose, the woman is wheeled outside to the waiting ambulance. Krause stays behind to lock up the modest home and tend to the ants swarming on kitchen counters, drawn by fried chicken left too long in the sink.
Krause, 69, is a member of Leisure World's unusual security force made up of retirees who patrol within the walls of Southern California's largest retirement community. It is an elaborate, three-tiered network consisting of unarmed Leisure World residents and a team of armed, retired police officers from the Orange County Sheriff's Department, California Highway Patrol and the Santa Ana and Los Angeles police departments. Recently, a group of avid horsemen formed an equestrian patrol to augment the regular security force in the event of a major disaster.
Jack Chezick, 73, squad leader of the nine-member horse patrol, said the group has been going through training exercises once a week to become familiar with the rugged terrain surrounding the complex. "Under adverse catastrophic situations, we'll provide damage assessment and act as messengers," Chezick said. "We can put out three squadrons right away, and on horseback you can see better than on foot."
Meanwhile, everyday security is handled by 240 residents known as the "motor patrol" and a team of police officers.
"I always was a scanner buff," said Krause, a retired aircraft salesman who works three days a week on the motor patrol. "When I was a kid, I volunteered with the LAPD. I love to help these people when I can."
For Robert Coutts, 57, a retired Orange County sheriff's deputy, the landscaped, quiet streets of Leisure World are a far cry from the drive-by shootings and gang violence on the outside. "The pace is much slower because you're dealing with a generation of people who grew up with a respect for the law," he said. "When you drive down the street, they wave instead of throwing rocks."
Over the years, there hasn't been much crime to speak of in the community of 22,000 residents, where the average age is 76. Coutts, head of investigations, can't remember the last time there was a murder in Leisure World. Two months ago, a resident's son barricaded himself inside a house with a gun until he was talked out seven hours later. But violent crime is a rarity within the gated community.
Rather, the elderly residents, perceived as easy prey, are victims of theft and burglary. But even these crimes are few. Last week, for instance, there were 17 reported thefts.
Security officers spend the bulk of their time responding to calls for medical assistance. There were 1,800 paramedic calls to Leisure World last year.
For example, a resident complains of hearing a repeated knocking coming from somewhere next door. Security units discover an incapacitated elderly man who had fallen down and and had been trapped between heavy pieces of furniture for hours. The sound was a cane tapping against the wall.
There are also numerous calls for helping lost residents find their way back home, parking complaints, leaky faucets and bug problems. "They have needs that the community outside the walls doesn't have," said Gerald Riviere, 57, also a former sheriff's deputy. "We have people that fall down. . . . If someone hasn't been seen in a few days and their mail starts piling up, (neighbors) call us."
The system gets good reviews from Orange County fire officials who estimate that half of the calls from the Laguna Hills station are dispatched to the retirement community.
"They start pulling out the patient information and rounding up their medicine so by the time we get there it's already been done," said Capt. David Bautista. "We can just take care of the patient and get them out to the hospital." The Leisure World security office could be the front desk at any police precinct. Two police dispatchers sit behind a glass booth surrounded by scanners, television monitors and dozens of two-way radios. The officers refer to each other by rank--sergeant, captain or commander--and, as sworn police officers, carry guns. They respond with members of the 24-hour civilian motor patrol.
The job offers a glimpse into the not-too-distant future for the retired police officers who are approaching their 60s and 70s. "For many of us, it's really a transition from pre-retirement to retirement," said Riviere, who worked 21 years as a sheriff's deputy. "You really get to see the highlights and the lowlights of the retirement process. You see those who are really active and you see those who are incapacitated."
It is also an ideal way of augmenting a pension. "I've been here eight years," said Robert Lo Prest, a former policeman in the District of Columbia and Orange County sheriff's deputy. "I'm a triple dipper. I get retirement from the Sheriff's Department, this retirement and Social Security."
Keeping tabs on 12,736 units, which include homes, two 14-story high-rise buildings and a luxury residential hotel, spread out over more than three square miles, keeps security busy. And, residents waste little time in reporting anything suspicious.
"They'll see someone 50 years old standing by the mailbox for an hour and they'll call up and say, 'There's some kid out by the mailbox--some vagrant,' " said Larry Helser, who at 45 is one of the youngest security officers. "That's what's interesting. . . . They have such a unique viewpoint."