We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Los Angeles 911: To Protect & Serve

By Arati Patel

"A police force, wherever they are, is made up of amazing people."
-Nancy Mckeon

A small sized school bus crashed into a 16 inch pole on the corner of Massachusetts and Largo avenue in Santa Monica Monday morning, around 10:40am. The caller was the driver of the bus, collective and calm to say the least. 45 kids were on board, and thankfully no one was injured. Soon as the phone call was received, Alice Metabranch, dispatcher, grabbed her yellow walkie talkie and had the nearest police and ambulance unit rush to the scene. The location the call was coming from came onto one screen, the other had the name & location of nearest deputies, and the third was map of the local areas, pinpointing nearest hospital and fire station. She taps her leg twice and hangs up the call. Her walkie talkie lights up. The police have reached the location, paramedics have arrived, and the note of the accident has been taken.

Alice Metabranch is a police dispatcher.

Also known as a “Public Safety Telecommunicator” dispatching has proven to become just as vital as public safety units themselves. Beyond the stress of having to control a frantic caller or a uncooperative victim, dispatchers face the difficult task of practicing, preparing and settling any sort of situation that they must adhere to.

Alice Metabranch has been working as a police dispatcher for the past 11 years. From processing calls to taking notes day in and day out, she foregoes a high paying career to work in this smaller, faster paced environment. Dispatching involves quick responding, sufficiently intelligent personnel with a passion to help others. Over the years, dispatching has become more of a “go-to” career, as requirements are only that of at least a high school diploma, and pay is above minimum average but far below self sufficient for today’s economy. Metabranch, who studied accounting in college and worked as a private real estate accountant most of her life, making roughly $60,000 a year. The shift to dispatching requires less work from Metabranch, and on average brings in $33,000 per year. Though she left her previous, more lucrative career, Alice has found an inner euphoria with police dispatching.

Those aspiring to become police dispatchers in the Los Angeles as well as most other counties in California are required to go though training prior to gaining their job title. The training is a total of roughly 600 hours. 300 hours of a basic dispatching class, where they must learn how to handle certain calls, how to proceed with action, and how to maintain certain demeanors regardless of call volume and situation intensity. 200 hours of hand on training, in which the candidate must become familiarized with all the equipment, and 100 hours of dispatching academy, which combines both the hands on as well as classroom training. Potential dispatchers are also suggested to participate on ride-along’s with officers, as well as take in different shifts in order to see how call volume changes throughout the day.

“ The training is by no means hard, it just takes a lot of time. It isn’t boring or like any other training though, it’s a lot more hands on. We learned more how to do things rather then what to do. Some people think it’s as simple as picking up a phone, I know that’s the general idea I had before I worked here, but there’s way more to the job requirements then just that.”

As a dispatcher, the call demographic that Metabranch has seen through the past 11 years ranges from the smallest of matters, to the occasional prank call, and even some of the most scary situations.

Alice recalls one phone call she received a few years ago. 7-year-old Emilia made a frantic phone call at 11:45pm, after an armed robber entered her home.

“She called right before my shift was about to be over.” Said Metabranch. She was so quiet and I could barely hear her speak, luckily we have a voice enhancer, for cases such as these. She was calling from the inside of a closet. Someone had broken into her home so she hid. Her parents were both asleep and she said she could hear the burglar rummaging through her parents bedroom. Scared to death, she hid in the closet, which luckily was close to the phone. I tried to get as much information as I could from her, but tried to keep her calm as the dispatching system sent out cops to her home. In the middle of our conversation, you could hear the burglar screaming things like “if anyone is home, speak now or I will shoot. Speak up!! Anyone home?!. There better not be no-one up these stairs. You hear me? Say it now or I will shoot.” I wasn’t sure if the man actually had a gun or was only trying to scare whoever was home, so I also wasn’t fast to react in case of something serious. After hearing this not only was I scared to death for the poor girl but she began to cry frantically. I was so worried something was going to happen to her, and felt like her life was im some way in my hands. Luckily, the officers got to her house in time, and took the burglar into custody.”

Dispatchers work is specific sectors of the Los Angeles Police Department. Each of the bureaus -- East, South, West. and Valley have about 70 dispatchers on a working day. Metabranch, who works in the central district of the LAPD also works with officers Joe Lestic and Mark Opgale. She is connected to their unit for the greater part of her shifts. Most dispatchers, rarely, are connected to a certain squad unit.

“My shift is usually the 2pm to 10pm weeknight shift, the same shift that Mark and Joe often have, in the same central area. That’s why they’re the ones who answer most of my radio calls.”

I met with officers Lestic and Opgale, before they’re Tuesday evening shift.

Joe is three sips into his coffee while Mark fiddles through his iPhone. It’s 9pm on Tuesday night and officers Lestic and Opgale are just about ready to head on their patrol shift. Joe is middle aged, about 6 foot tall and had fading brown hair. Mark, shorter with a stubby appearance, has dark blonde hair and pale grey eyes, the giant birthmark behind his ear is almost perfectly visible without him having to turn around. They walk out of Colton Coffee, and head down Lincoln Ave. towards inner city Santa Monica. It’s a colder evening. Both officers are wearing enormous jackets, placed perfectly on top of a belt that holds a mid sized pistol, toy sized walkie talkie, some sort of pepper spray, black flashlight and seemingly heavy baton and shiny silver handcuffs.

“We don’t often use all of these things. I barely every fire my gun and I could probably react faster than using my pepper spray. But its all for safety purposes,” says Lestic

Both Joe and Mark are veterans in the force. In their mid 50’s, both officers have been working to save lives for the past 20 odd years. From bank standoffs, high speed chases, armed crimes and minor accidents, they’ve seen it all. The LAPD has just over 10,000 officers that cover 500 square miles of Los Angeles county and protect over 3 million citizens, making it the third largest law enforcement agency in the United States. Practiced in policing inner city conflicts and suburban disputes alike, the men and women of the LAPD are trained through every possible scenario. Some people admire them, most people can't stand them them. They can go from being a persons best friend, to their least favorite.

“This job ain’t for everyone,” says Lestic “In midst of some of the scariest situations you cant help but think about your life at home, my wife and my kids, and if I’ll ever see them again. It’s the scariest thing to have to worry about, and having to do so more than once is just apart of this job.”

“I couldn’t give replay even half what I’ve seen out on the streets. Being in Los Angeles, you’re
bound to come across almost anything.”

Anything often happened. One night, while in their number 206 patrol car, a dispatcher walkie talk-ied in the car and told the officers to head north onto Pico blvd. Three men were said to be surrounding an alley way, and were said to be disturbing the peace, from whomever called. 3rd right on the next stop light and they arrived to the scene. It was extremely dark out, the time change and lack of lighting in this urban area of Los Angeles made it hard to see without the headlights of the patrol car. Lestic and Opgale headed out.

“When we walked out of the car we spotted three Asian American teenagers acting very suspicious.”

The officers went through basic procedure, Lestic informed me that he shined his flashlight at the boys, told them to stop what they were doing and that officers had arrived.”

“It was shady,” says Opgale. “Three teens who have no business being in some strange alleyway, all in dark clothing attire being louder than normal.”

Both officers asked the boys what they were up to. Nervous in the least, they informed the officers that nothing was going on.

The two officers see drugs and violent behavior in this streets most often. They’re used to suspicious behavior, especially in the central Los Angeles county, where teenagers are often out at all hours of the night.

It turns out that that night, the boys were heckling a homeless man. They were taunting and throwing things at him, disturbing as it seems.

“You often wonder why people do certain things. But that’s not my job, we leave that to the psychologist,” said Lester, as he laughed.

Opgale directed the boys to the back of their car, and drove the homeless man to the nearest shelter.

It's not like a sequel to Rush Hour. There's no Chris Tucker. There's no crazy stand off. No weapons are drawn out, and the swat team isn't called to dismantle a bomb everyday. You've gotta be ready for anything, no matter how big. No matter how small.

Reporting Notes

-- 2 (45 minute) interviews with Alice Metabranch September 30th, November 2nd
-- 1 (1 hour) interview with Lester November 11th
-- 1 (1 hour) interview with Opgale November 11th
-- 20 minute observation in police car ride (25 minutes) --November 11th
-- Wikipedia : Dispatcher November 22nd
-- Wikipedia: Los Angeles Police Department
-- California DUI statistics; Los Angeles: November 22nd
-- Police Dispatcher training -November 22nd
-- Policy Duty Belt equipment -- November 22nd
-- Police Dispatching equipment -- Police Dispatcher Job Equipment --November 22nd www.911distpach.com
-- Los Angeles Police Department dispatcher training -- December 1st

1 comment: