The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : Rescue Work’s Underground Connection
Much of the most dramatic work of Los Angeles rescue workers--paramedics and firefighters--takes place on some of the city’s toughest streets, but every emergency call they answer comes from a small group of invisible partners who work not on the streets but about 80 feet below them.
Deep in the bowels of City Hall East, down a twisting concrete ramp that winds three levels to an office that was built to withstand a direct nuclear hit sits the Los Angeles Fire Department’s communications center, formally known as the Operations Control Division.
“Hello, and welcome to your Los Angeles City Fire Department,” said public affairs officer Brian Humphrey, parroting his signature phone greeting to reporters.
Humphrey is a tall, silver-haired man with a by-the-book demeanor. Wearing black military-style boots and a pressed white shirt with silver firefighter pins on each collar, his semiformal voice matches his job, much as Vin Scully’s trademark nasal drone means Dodger baseball.
Together with Jim Wells and Bob Collis, the other two public affairs officers, these three men are the Voice of the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Each spent at least four years in the field as a firefighter.
They rotate on 24-hour shifts, followed by two days off, hours that can grow long indeed when all the phone lines light up for hours at a time in a newsworthy disaster.
Wells and Collis are the veterans, with more than a dozen years of experience apiece in dealing with media phone-storms. On Jan. 17, Collis, who arrived at work 30 minutes before the Northridge earthquake, took every call that first day.
“It was constant, the phone never stopped ringing,” Collis said. “I answered calls from Ireland, England, Germany, Japan and Denmark. Ironically, the one I had the most trouble understanding was England. Everyone else spoke perfect English.”
The communications center lies tucked in a maze of hallways, some of them divided by two-foot-thick solid steel doors. The self-sufficient facility has its own gym, well-stocked kitchen and separate water and power lines. It can operate indefinitely in a disaster.
Inside the office, 11 dispatchers answer every fire and paramedic call in Los Angeles, nearly 1,200 a day in 1993, according to department statistics. This particular Friday night was a slow one: “only” 866 incidents.
Four dispatchers take fire and emergency calls from the San Fernando Valley, four from the rest of the city, and three take only medical calls. The communications center also coordinates shifting coverage areas of the department’s 104 fire stations.
When trucks from one station leave on a call, a nearby station is immediately notified to handle their incoming calls. This gets complicated, given the number of calls.
The communications station captain plays “fire chess” on a big map board, Humphrey said, shuffling coverage areas according to availability.
Sometime next year, the Fire Department will switch to the Fire Command and Control System 2, a state-of-the-art computer system that will automatically route 911 calls and allow all operators to dispatch emergency units. Under the present system, only three of the 11 Fire Department operators who receive calls from police 911 operators now actually transmit calls to fire and ambulance units--one of them specializing in all Valley dispatch work. Logjams occur when several operators all have assignments for one dispatcher.
The new system--already being assembled down the hall in a room that looks more like a Pentagon missile command center than a Fire Department installation--uses three large color computer screens and a locator system accurate to 10 feet to track fire units and incidents around the city. It can send the closest engine company or ambulance to an incident, Humphrey said.
In the meantime, 911 operators will continue to answer each call one at a time, the old-fashioned way, until they move to the new high-tech office.
“Is he breathing OK?” asked a 911 operator.
“We got a firetruck and ambulance on their way, but I’m going to stay on the line with you.”