The Fight Against Crime: Notes from the Front : 911 Calls Run the Gamut in Burbank

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The emergency calls that came into the communications center of the Burbank Police Department Tuesday morning will never make it onto "Rescue 911."

* A woman reported that her roommate was walking through the apartment naked. She wanted him kicked out.

* A man set "a little fire" in a shoe store. He sheepishly admitted cutting through the gas line with a blowtorch.

* A man sent $25,000 in diamonds to a gemologist but had not heard back from him. He's been waiting for a year.

"One thing about this job," said Theresa Raine, 29, who has worked as a 911 operator for the department for 13 years, "is that no two days are ever the same.

"You just never know what kind of calls you are going to get."

The 911 calls are at times, of course, extremely serious. Raine has heard people shot over the phone line. She has coached a woman whose baby had stopped breathing.

"You have to detach yourself, take a step back from these situations if you are going to get the job done," Raine said. "Otherwise, you'd never make it more than a couple of days."

Burbank's 911 unit, which also handles all other calls coming into the Police Department, is one of two in the San Fernando Valley that takes emergency calls. The other is in the city of San Fernando. In all other areas of the Valley, 911 calls go directly to the Los Angeles Police Department's centralized downtown emergency call unit.

The Burbank unit is staffed 24 hours a day with at least three operators. On Tuesday, Raine was the primary mesage taker, or PMT. Rita Smith was the other call taker and a third woman handled the dispatch radio calls to and from police units in the field.

Only five of the 25 telephone lines coming into the unit are designated for 911. Four more are for the emergency number listed in the telephone book under the Burbank Police Department. The rest are for general or internal calls.

Raine took a call on one of the emergency lines from a woman who was crying. "I need an emergency for a spousal abuse," the caller said. Raine quickly asked her several direct questions and found out that the woman's husband was allegedly breaking a restraining order.

"He is standing right here," the woman said. "I need to have him arrested."

It turned out that the call was from outside Burbank. "This happens all the time," Raine said. "People call information and ask for the police, and the first number the information operator sees is for Burbank." Raine put the woman through to the LAPD.

The everyday miseries of the city are part of the routine for these operators and they handle them with a crisp, firm manner. "You have to take control of the conversation right away, which is not easy to do over the phone, especially when people are upset," Raine said. "You have to get accurate information. You have to get the information that will let a police officer know what's going on."

Given all that, the atmosphere in the unit's offices at the back of the police station is light and congenial. The women joke with each other when calls are slow and catch up with family matters. And they talk about the sometimes bizarre 911 calls.

"I once had someone call and ask, 'When's the next earthquake going to be?' " Smith laughed. "Like we're supposed to know."

They do know an impressive amount. Raine, who grew up in Burbank, can tell you what is on nearly every intersection in the city. In front of each operator are five video screens giving them access to a wide range of information they can call up on a specific address or crime incident.

Raine said her favorite part of the job is when she gets caught up in a fast-moving situation and must use all the resources at her disposal. "We had a long chase the other day and that was really fun," she said. She joined the department as a cadet, but said she has no regrets about choosing to work in the communications unit instead of becoming an officer.

"To sit here and be involved in one of those cases thrills the heck out of me," she said. "It's as much thrills as I can take."

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