Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In the Nick of time… By Lt. Pata

The police dispatch center is usually the most frenetic and energized section of the department. The men and women that work in this job are, in my opinion, insane (and I mean insanely amazing!). I say that because it is a really hard job. The training program is over a year and these folks are constantly learning and participating in new methods to get us to you in a safe and timely manner. Toss in the calls from people who want to report seeing Elvis downtown and add a healthy dose of people calling for weather conditions in Lake Tahoe and if you are weak minded, you have the recipe for losing your mind.

I have sat in dispatch a number of times and would recommend it for any cop or citizen to see how it works. It is pretty amazing. The front office is also pretty crazy. The difference is the people can actually come in to the front office and engage our expert front office staff face to face. Once I had a guy walk in the office and demand I arrest his wife for adultery. On another occasion I had a former hooker pull a knife on me and slam it into the counter (Cue the “Boing!” soundtrack.) She was arrested, but now has been paroled to the eternal parole officer. (May she rest in peace.)

I worked in the front office as a Cadet and immediately recognized that I was not nice enough or patient enough for both jobs. So to make the world right and undo my past grumpy advice to the world as a Cadet we give you: Margo, Lori, Kelly, Lynn, Gina and Julie. In truth, your “customer service” experience is either their cheery voice on the business line or maybe your nice visit to our facility while waiting in our lounge……err holding tank)

After listening to years of storied calls from my brother and his fellow asylum occupants at the communication center, I can understand the coffee consumption, the nail biting, the foot tapping and all of the other stuff that seems to naturally come with the job. I am surprised they don’t have a large – industrial sized Pez dispenser for stress reducing drugs affixed to the wall. They do, however, have Dispatcher Anndora Lee’s infused water to help wash down the blood pressure pills and aspirin.

I have nothing but respect and attachment to the ladies and my brother because they deserve it…not because they have dirt on me. Well, OK some do! I can’t name them all, but Charly the boss is a saint in my book. Sabrina, Lisa, Shelly all of them are pro’s. Our dispatch center is famous for not having a huge turn over. That speaks of the community, our department, but most of all the people. Of course my respect won’t prevent me from goofing on them.

Imagine taking a call of a shooting and then sending your pals to the call hoping they make it back, so you can all tell a story, or maybe share in an adult beverage one day. The pressure must be debilitating.

One word can make the difference in this dangerous game. Ultimately it is the responsibilities of the officer to self evaluate a call and not get caught in the trap of what I call –reporting party induced coma. The suggested possibility of what something might be is a dirty trick – kind of mental Russian roulette.

Take for example uninformed or unverified perspective…What I mean is a caller might suggest a toy gun from their vantage point. Well, today, real guns look like toy guns. In fact they are partially made of plastic. The mindset going into that call is so important, and while we don’t disregard a dispatch – we have to make a mental call based upon what we think – not upon the message from a caller who may have never seen a gun before in their life. I can only imagine the years ticked off their humble and valuable dispatch lives from the internal inertia coupled with the caustic shot of gastric acids working over their stomach-lining like a pinball bouncing off the metaphorical bumpers of their gastrointestinal system. Add a gallon of coffee-chugged earlier to stay sharp and viola - Peptic Ulcer!

Our dispatchers are the mice on the wheel of our department. I say that respectfully because, while their equipment is good, their conditions are not so luxurious. Their room is a cave. It is as pleasant as we can make it, considering they are underground with no windows and essentially trapped like rats in a small room. I used to joke that we needed to buy a canary in a cage and leave it in the radio room as a poor man’s air quality monitor. The room is outfitted with all kinds of radios, phones, LCD and plasma screens that operate surveillance cameras in our back lot that make it look like NASA or NORAD. I guess the cameras are really a version of a window.

Cops are afraid of the dispatch center. I am. Imagine the insertion of stress via a plastic tube carrying the screams, crying, whining, at times angry and incoherent pleas, transported from the radio plug - directly into your brain. All of this happens for twelve hours a day and its piped directly into their ears and therefore their lives each time that freaking phone rings. What will the next call bring? Birds chirping keeping a resident awake? Maybe a shooting or stabbing? Will it be the desperate call for help in the middle of the night when mom or pop does not return from the toilet as they lay on the cold floor as their life leaves them, pulse-less. Maybe it’s the child that won’t wake up.

Imagine being a dispatcher and being off duty. I would never answer the phone at home. I’d send it all to the answering machine and then when the phone rang at home, I think I’d do the wave with my family. I would be willing to bet none of our dispatchers have called and asked for weather conditions at their local police department.

Those calls for help do not come easy for some. It is an admission that there is a problem our clients can’t resolve. It is an agonizing realization that maybe their marriage should not be abusive and painful, or that my loved one should have come home or called days ago…or a mother’s worry that their child is on the street surviving the very best way they know. Our dispatchers and front office staff are the perfect reception center for these worried and desperate folks, programmed for all of it, but rarely do they ever get to see or hear the result. Very often they never hear a thank you. It’s like reading a book or watching a movie and never getting the opportunity to finish the book, or finish the movie. How much could it suck to constantly be the person that initiates the delivery of help, but never see the outcome? It would drive me crazy. It is like your mom turning off the TV before you get to see who committed the crime or who got the girl...on every show…every night.

Cops get to go to the scene and fix the problem, even if it is just to hold a hand and maybe share a quiet cry. The dispatchers are left in a lurch. They sit on the edge of their chair literally between life and death. The silence of a car calling out that they are on the scene…and the deafening pause between the crackle of the radio announcing the arrival and the disposition once the officers have assessed the situation. That kind of perpetual sitting on the edge of the chair should squeeze the life out of our folks, but still they persevere and somehow maintain their patience (usually) and their sanity.

There is a little phenomenon that happens from time to time, I like to think it is God’s little way of announcing an officer needs help. It happens in every department and is not an engineered function of our sophisticated radios. It is really, in my opinion, an external special-maybe spiritual force that reaches down and pushes the push to talk button on the portable radio during a fight. It is the cousin of the spirit or almighty wise-guy saint that also hits the push to talk button and broadcasts to the universe –when you are goofing on the boss or maybe another officer’s new girlfriend.

The “hurry up this guy needs help” sound is universal. After even a month on the job you get the meaning of the hurried unintelligible noise transmitted on the radio as a call for help. I can’t tell you how many times the radio mysteriously keyed up as the fight was ‘ON” between an officer and a bad guy. This is an unmistakable sound that reverberates between the portable radio on the officer’s hip to the rest of the planet. It is a jumble of furniture breaking, grunts or maybe moans that is the unintelligible –but widely recognized as a scream for help. Hear it once and you will understand the mechanism that our dispatchers must understand and harness when they hear sounds from officers fighting, to the 9-1-1 call where the fight is heard on the open line. For me, it is a contraction in my stomach that only releases the closer I get to my partner. How they do it is probably a curse for them, but a blessing to all of us.

Harnessing your experiences and giving our customers a wide variety of perspectives only makes us stronger as an agency. Let me explain: A couple of year’s back I was a patrol sergeant. Our dispatch center received a 9-1-1 call from a woman saying she had been kidnapped. The cell phone she used to call us suddenly went dead. There was a strong suggestion that this woman was an erotic roadside entrepreneur.

We had some GPS coordinates, but had no idea what she looked like.
Dispatcher Antoinette Cook was on-duty. Antoinette has more personality than most people I have ever met. Antoinette denies being a diva, but I would think she runs the show in almost any venue. I asked Antoinette to call the number back; however it went right to voicemail. That is usually a bad sign that the phone has been turned off. The detective in me asked Antoinette what kind of music was playing on the victim’s phone voicemail. I could clearly hear music, but I’m no longer hip, it was not the Doobie Brothers or Metallica so could not figure out who was singing. So what do you do when you are half dead and no longer hip? You ask your youthful members to step in and translate.

Like magic – the room went silent. Antoinette started to listen to the music playing on the victim’s voice message…about three seconds passed and I noticed Antoinette started to bob her head from back to front. As she did this her chair also started to rock back and forth. Antoinette then got into the groove of the song. I remember seeing her hair bounce back and forth as she suddenly blurted out “Beyonce!” It was hilarious to see. For me it was like Gene Wilder in the movie Young Frankenstein announcing the monster lives! In trying to solve this crime we had to turn to the voice message song to get a clue. In the process, Antoinette was able to get her groove on.

I took a chance and asked Antoinette to broadcast to our units to keep an eye out for a prostitute in the area of the GPS coordinates. I never thought this would work, but it did. About 15 minutes later we found the hooker and she had the phone. Oh and the song, was Beyonce.

Another time, I was a patrol officer awhile back and was in a foot chase with an armed suspect. I was out there alone, but I could hear the sirens coming to my aid. I called out on the radio “PD L-20 foot chase!” I followed it up with “He’s got a gun!” The calming voice on the other end was my big brother Nick. He was always my common sense mentor as a kid – usually cleaning up after my mistakes but always respectful of my decisions as wrong as they might have been. Nick’s voice and presence on the radio never seems to raise a peg on the decibel level. His delivery in a calm monotone voice is calming to me and as I look at his service over the years admire how he does his job. Of course the behind the scenes editorializing – er language, would make a hooker blush, but I guess that is his way of off-loading stress and I know the other pro’s in the radio room fire off at us and at our community- perhaps not with the same vigor… in the privacy of their cave. The nice thing for him is that he has a genuine tender spot for the gals who work with him as he would quickly deny. They deserve a purple heart for living with him, hearing his professional wrestling mania and his world travels to the next WWE adventure. I know ladies.

What was remarkable to me about Nick was as I caught up to the armed suspect when he hid in an external building closet, I was at a kind of a cross roads. Was I going to shoot this guy? I called out “PD-20 One at gunpoint!” Nick calmly repeated my message to the responding cars and then…there was silence…nothing.
I waited for my cover to get there so we could get this “scifoso” out of the closet and into my car with everyone hopefully coming out of this uninjured. I later reflected on that moment of silence. I know how my heart squeezes hard and stays contracted for that moment when I hear an officer call out the same message, and wondered what it would be like for my brother.

Now, Nick and I had a typical big brother little brother tumultuous childhood. He was (and still is) into wrestling and used me as his turnbuckle, or practice dummy. I have vivid memories of him jumping down on me from the top of the couch with his elbow shoved into my chest or gut as the air was purged from my little lungs. He also used the “sleeper hold” on me way before the disclosures for kids not to do this stuff at home. Of course I paid him back once – the pivotal moment of my life when I knew I was going to be an artist. I stabbed him in the leg with a pencil. Now back then, I remember we were all warned about lead and how it was poison. I thought I had just given Nick a death sentence.

So this all passes before me when he is on the radio and I am in the middle of something that is digressing into a bad, bad call. On the call above I had the one and only serious talk with Nick at the end of the watch. I remember walking from the back door of our station to my car. It was about a 50 yard walk. I remember we were both quiet. You could hear our feet shuffling across the pavement as I broke the silence and I said “Nick, do you ever worry about me on those kinds of calls?” Stoic and a little devoid of emotion, big bro said in his monotone and matter of fact voice “No, I figure you are going to die first.” I looked over at him to see the non-verbal queue that he was joking or poking fun at me. There were none. He walked away toward his car and never looked over. It was a little sobering considering he is older than me. It also made me reconsider my life-insurance beneficiary assignment! Of course I told my mom. She said with a smile and a heavy accent “Ralphy why are you so stupid?” She then said he was probably right.

Officers typically get the glory and the “thank-you” (if ever) but only deserve part of that. The balance of it really belongs to the person that called, but more importantly – the people that answered that call. The front office and the dispatchers. What’s the point of making a call if it won’t get answered? It is like asking a question and getting a stern question back – “Don’t you know? Don’t you remember?” That won’t happen when you call us. While privately, we might goof on your dilemma – like losing the handcuff keys in the throws of passion, we will still come and unlock you. And yes, we will throw a blanky over you first.

Stay safe and always keep a spare key in the nightstand. Ralphy