California Wildfires Show the Value of Old Tech

When cell coverage goes down, it’s all ham radios and sirens to the rescue.

Wildfires that killed nine people in a remote Northern California county last month also crippled landlines, cell phones, and internet service, the local sheriff said Thursday, saying the disaster shows old-fashioned sirens and ham radios have a place in emergencies.

Failures of modern technology can cost “all connectivity to the world,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at a news conference. When lives are at stake, “we need to notify people immediately that this is a real disaster, we need to get out of here.”

Nine of the 43 people who died in the devastating Northern California wildfires that began Oct. 8 were in Mendocino County, in an area called Redwood Valley, although other valleys and areas also burned in the county at the same time.

The Los Angeles Times, citing interviews and a review of dispatch calls, reported Monday that the county appears to have waited more than an hour after fire was first reported in Redwood Valley to order evacuations there. The report said numerous residents called 911 to report that they were trapped.

Allman did not specifically address the report Thursday or whether the communications failures slowed evacuation efforts.

However, he described the hectic first hours of the wildfires, when dispatchers fielded countless emergency calls and law enforcement officers struggled to grasp the scale of fires surging around the area, as dry gusts drove embers and flames for miles.

“They’ve never taken this many calls before,” Allman said of local dispatchers. It was “the largest fire situation … in California history,” he said referring to the fires that encompassed several counties.

At the request of authorities, the area’s utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, cut power in the first hours of the fires, out of concern that sparks would ignite still more blazes, Allman said.

Cell phones and internet service failed for many and CalFire lost “a good portion of its phone lines” in Mendocino County, the sheriff said.

Instead, emergency workers drove through neighborhoods ordering residents out over bullhorns and knocking on doors.

Ham radio operators, meanwhile, volunteered for work in the disaster, helping to coordinate the transportation of victims to hospitals, he said.

Allman pledged to streamline the chain of command for ordering automated cell-phone alerts, or reverse-911 calls, to make it easier for individual law officers to order them.

The sheriff also urged authorities to reconsider civil-defense sirens, staples of the World War II-era that have fallen into disuse in recent decades. Many areas have taken down the sirens because of complaints from residents about the noise associated with testing the devices.

At a minimum, “I hope Mendocino County can take a step back and reposition air raid sirens,” Allman said.


Credit: Associated Press

 

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Orange County Project 25 Upgrade Report

The following article is from the SystemWatch Newsletter published by the Orange County Sheriff Department Communications and Technology Division.

As all of you know, we are in the midst of a major upgrade to our 800 MHz Countywide Coordinated Communications System (CCCS). This upgrade provides several key enhancements to the current system.

First and foremost, it brings us into compliance with Project 25, or “P25,” for short. This standard will allow for even greater interoperability between various agencies so we can more easily communicate, in both routine and emergency situations. We will also see the advent of Over-The-Air Programming (OTAP) and Over-The-Air Rekeying (OTAR).

Once installed and up and running, OTAP will allow us to reprogram and provide radio updates “over-the-air.” In the past we had to physically “touch” each radio one at a time. OTAR will allow for the changing of encryption keys over-the-air. As with OTAP, this process was not able to be completed in the past without the physical reprogramming of each radio in person. In the future, these new technologies will be part of the system and updates will occur in the background without inconveniencing the end users.

Last month we traveled to Elgin, Illinois to take delivery of almost $25 million worth of new radio infrastructure equipment. This process is commonly referred to as a “Staging Event” and allows us to review and test all of our remote site equipment in a “real-time, live environment” before officially taking delivery. The engineering team led by our Chief Engineer and Assistant Director, Steve Miller, consisted of Senior Telecommunications Engineers Jim Donovan and Erik Schull, and Telecommunications Engineer III, Eldwin Lajom and Andrew Pham.

We spent a full day at the Motorola Staging Facility where we put all of the systems through a battery of tests to ensure the equipment was properly configured and optimized. This day concluded with our “customer acceptance” where we officially signed off and accepted the equipment. During our physical inspection of the over 100 racks of radio equipment, we did find several issues. Most of these, Motorola was able to address before shipment and some will be addressed and resolved during the installation process back home in Orange County. This is exactly why this process of review and testing is in place prior to sign-off and acceptance.

Once accepted, our equipment was wrapped up and shipped to Orange County on three semi-trucks. This new equipment will be installed over the next year as we continue to move forward with the upgrade of the CCCS.

Our two-day trip also included a tour of the Motorola Production Facility, where many of our radios for the CCCS are assembled, tested and shipped from. We also toured the Motorola Solutions Innovation Center in downtown Chicago. This facility showcases some of the latest emerging technologies that Motorola is developing for the public safety market. It was a look into the window of the future as to where digital communications are headed. We are excited about the future and where it will take us.

Our goal is to provide our first responders, and all of our users, with the best interoperable communications system possible, so when they key the mic, they can focus on the job at hand, and not wonder if their transmissions will get through.

Will there be a change to talkaround (T/A) channels?

In preparation for the Next Generation radio system upgrade, a massive distribution and reprogramming of the new Motorola APX user radio equipment is now underway on a Countywide scale, and will occur in phases over the course of the next few months. During this time, agencies may use the new radios, however, there will be a subtle difference.

All talkaround (T/A) channels on the reprogrammed radios will only work with other reprogrammed radios. If an agency is still working on the old radios, those same talkarounds will work only on nonreprogrammed radios.

Example: If “City A” has all their new APX radios programmed, they can utilize “White-TA” and communicate amongst themselves or with other new APX programmed radios. If neighbor “City B” is still on their old XTS radios or non-reprogrammed APX radios, communicating with City A on “White-TA” will not work due to the rebanded frequency change.

What is the time frame for the cutover of the upgraded system?

This cutover is a massive undertaking that is in progress concurrently with the FCC mandated rebanding project. With the addition of the rebanding project, we foresee the P25 cutover concluding in the last quarter of 2019. Since this cutover is occurring in phases, your agency may receive equipment and/or updates sooner or later than others, and at that point, you will also be provided with further training materials to review the changes/updates.


Credit: OCSD SystemWatch Newsletter

 

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Here Come the Drones! LA City Council OK’s Fire Department’s Guidelines

Guidelines for a Los Angeles Fire Department drone program were approved by the City Council Tuesday over the objections of some civil rights organizations concerned that the devices could be used to infringe on individual liberties.

The 11-0 vote formalizes rules for the fire department’s use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems. The City Council had already cleared the way in July for the LAFD to develop the program.

According to the guidelines, drones would be used by the LAFD in “emergencies where the complexity or scope of the incident require critical decision making on the part of the incident commander and/or pose a significant risk to firefighter safety (that) could require the use of a department UAS.”

The guidelines also say drones would be used, but not be limited to, situations involving hazardous materials, confined space rescues, high/low angle rescues, swift or moving water rescues “or any other expanded or extended incident.” A process for requesting a drone is also outlined.

The guidelines note that of the nearly 470,000 calls for service the department responds to annually, about 99 percent would not necessitate the use of a drone.

Both the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department have also been pursuing drones over the objection of civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which are concerned about “mission creep” and worry the devices will one day be armed with weapons or used to conduct mass surveillance.

The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners recently approved drone- use guidelines, though the overwhelming majority of the public feedback it received on the program was opposed to it.

The sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission recently voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the LASD’s drone program. But that vote is not binding on the department, and Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the agency will continue using the devices.

The LAFD guidelines address privacy concerns and state the devices would not be used to monitor members of the public or provide surveillance for law enforcement.


Credit: City News Service, Getty Images

 

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Anaheim PD Keeps an ‘Angel’ in the Air

Anaheim PD Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland, left, and Pilot Jimmy Elliott bank to the right in an Angel police helicopter. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC By Shawn Price

Angel is watching over the city as the sun sets on a hot August day. Anaheim PD’s Air Support Bureau is cruising at 1,200 feet above it all, and below, the streets are a safer place because of it.

Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland monitors current calls and a mapping system on a laptop-sized computer screen, while Officer/Pilot Jimmy Elliott watches the gauges and flies the helicopter, nicknamed Angel. In short, one handles the police work and the other handles the flying, but either one can help the other if the situation calls for it.

“There’s so much more happening in the cockpit than someone flying a plane from point A to B,” says Poland. 

Anaheim PD Pilot Jimmy Elliott, left, and Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland in front of the police helicopter nicknamed Angel.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In 2016, Air Support Bureau officers spent 2,425 hours above the city. With that much time in the air, Angel or her back-up can reach their FAA-required, every-100-hour maintenance check ups about every three weeks.

While no one will argue that an air support unit is cheap, all that time in the air does create an impact as significant as when police departments first switched from the horse and carriage to automobiles in the early 20th Century. The amount of man hours and manpower saved, as well as increased effectiveness, is easy to put into words.

“Studies say we’re equal to 20 cops,” says Sgt. Bryan Santy. “We get there first because we don’t have to fight traffic. We get people before they get away.”

Air Support was first at the scene 66 percent of the time last year and initiated 28 arrests, very much in keeping with their average. They assisted in another 626 arrests, including 45 pursuits.

Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland stands next to one of two camera systems, owned by the Anaheim PD, installed under the police helicopter nicknamed Angel. The camera system is a high-definition camera, a low-light camera, and an HD-FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera. The million-dollar camera system is detachable and can be moved from aircraft to aircraft depending on the agency’s needs.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Officers in a helicopter generally orbit near the center of the city at approximately 75 miles per hour, allowing them to be at the scene of any call within about one minute. It’s an ability that not only helps officers, for example, spot suspects fleeing the scene of a robbery and keep an eye on them before they disappear, but can also spare other officers from having to respond to a call that ends up being nothing.

“We could have them chasing speeding cars all day, but we don’t want to overtax ground units,” Poland says. Air Support was able to cancel more than 360 calls last year. “It really matters to the guys on the ground that we can do that.”

If someone is lost in the local hills and can still talk on a phone, it’s relatively easy for Air Support to find them. If someone is trying to hide in those same hills, as was recently the case, it takes a bit more work, but FLIR thermal imaging cameras attached to the bottom of the helicopters helped locate 28 people last year. Regardless, Air Support can slash hours — even days — off the time it takes to locate, rescue or capture people.

If your car was the thing that was lost, Air Support might have helped with that, too. There were 56 LoJack-equipped vehicles located in 2016, resulting in 30 arrests.

Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland next to the helicopter nicknamed Angel. Much like Air Force One, it is designated over the radio as “Angel” when an Anaheim PD helicopter is in the air.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Angel is a sophisticated aircraft and an upgrade from previous helicopters. She is bigger, more powerful and equipped with lighter and better equipment than previous APD aircraft.

It has a brighter spotlight, but Angel’s imaging abilities can see as far as five miles away and tell Poland or Elliott in pitch darkness if the person on the ground is male or female and if they’re lying on their right or left side. The loudspeaker can now clearly be understood over the sound of the engine from 1,500 feet below, telling a suspect to surrender before a police K9 is sent in.

Then there’s the human element. Despite the cutting-edge tech, both Elliott and Poland know the city so well, they can often spot with their own eyes if something is wrong.

“We all start out as cops,” Poland says of the extensive training required to sit in Angel’s front seats. “You can teach a cop to be a pilot, but it’s a lot harder to teach a pilot to be a cop.”

Jimmy Elliott of Anaheim PD sits on the right as he pilots the helicopter.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Trainees will spend six months in observation before they even get a chance to actually do any test flights.

Back on the ground at the Air Support Facility in Fullerton, the two officers refuel Angel from an underground tank and head back into their building for some paperwork. Each half of their job has its own rewards. They love being in the air, but the office is quiet and the camaraderie is strong.

“It’s a neat environment,” Poland says. “But you go home tired and satisfied. What a great job this is.”

 

Anaheim PD Tactical Flight Officer Jay Poland, left, and Pilot Jimmy Elliott in the police helicopter nicknamed Angel.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Credit: Behind the Badge OC

 

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Alhambra High School Employee Takes Down Suspect: ‘Wrong Campus’

A man led police on a chase in a stolen car from Los Angeles to Alhambra, where he ran onto the campus of Mark Keppel High School and was arrested.

Los Angeles police officers began chasing the Honda in their jurisdiction late just before noon Friday. The driver sped from police on surface streets, at times approaching speeds estimated at 100 mph and nudging other vehicles out of the way at intersections.

About 12:15 p.m., the man drove onto the eastbound San Bernardino (10) Freeway. A couple of minutes later, he stopped on the right shoulder and climbed over a fence and onto the high school campus in the 500 block of East Hellman Avenue, where authorities quickly took him into custody about 12:20 p.m., according to the Monterey Park Police Department.

An employee at the school, already on alert because of the chase, was the first to confront and take down the suspect, who was held until officers arrived.

“I’ll say this, he picked the wrong campus to jump onto,” Principal John Scanlan said. “Our employees did a terrific job of making sure all of our students were safe.”

The suspect — whose name was not immediately released — was facing possible charges of car theft and evading a police officer.

News Report Video from KTLA:


Credit: City News Service, KTLA

 

 

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AM Radio Station Launch at Ontario Airport

Riverside County residents who plan to use Ontario International Airport for holiday travel can now tune into the aerodrome’s newly activated radio station for an update on traffic, parking, and other conditions 24 hours a day.

ONT AiRadio went live Friday on AM 620, providing round-the-clock advisories on activity in and around the airport.

The Ontario International Airport Authority said the goal was to have the system operational ahead of the Thanksgiving travel blitz, which unofficially begins Nov. 17.

In addition to the radio station, travelers can also tune into the system via the Internet by visiting www.flyontario.com and selecting the “listen live” feature.

Most of the time, the information provided in the broadcast is looped and contains general tips on where to find the major airlines serving the airport. However, during traffic tie-ups and other complications that may impact operations, the airport will break in with updates, officials said.

According to the OIAA, Caltrans is preparing to install signs along the Pomona (60) Freeway and Interstates 10 and 15, advising motorists of the radio station’s availability.

During the 2016 Thanksgiving travel period, 128,000 passengers came and went from the airport over a 10-day span, officials said.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the Riverside City Council were among the Inland Empire entities that supported the city of Ontario’s legal action to take over management of the airport, which until last year was under the control of Los Angeles World Airports.

Under an agreement cinched in December 2015, Ontario received ownership from LAWA at a cost of $120 million, to be paid over a decade.


Credit: City News Service

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LAFD Prepared for a Griffith Park Blaze

Los Feliz Hills resident Gary Simon took this photo from a friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills during the 2007 Griffith Park fires.

Following a series of devastating fires throughout California’s wine country in October, the 7,000 acre La Tuna fire that burned for three days near the 210 freeway in September and “red flag” parking restrictions—meant to leave streets clear for fire truck access and resident evacuation in times of high fire danger—enacted in the hills of Los Feliz in late October, some locals are wondering if the next wildfire will be in Griffith Park.

Leslie Thorson, who lives on Los Feliz Boulevard, recalls helping a friend evacuate during the wildfires that ravaged Griffith Park in 2007, destroying 800 acres of vegetation, but mercifully, no homes.

“The hillside right across from [my friends] house was ablaze,” said Thorson. “Then I came home [after helping her evacuate] and was told I had to evacuate too. … I grabbed some clothes and my cat and drove to a friend’s house in Hollywood.”

Los Feliz Hills resident Gary Simon said he vividly remembers “seeing flames come over the ridge across the canyon” from his home during the fires.

Simon said he now has a travel kit filled with toiletries and medications at the ready and keeps all of his family photos and important documents on an external hard drive he can easily grab if he needs to evacuate once again.

He also coordinated with a neighbor on the cul de sac below his to install a gate between their two properties to be used as an escape route if either street becomes blocked during a blaze.

According to Simon, he feels it’s “just a matter of time” before there is another fire in the park.

“There is a sense of underlying nervousness among those who were here for the 2007 fire,” said Simon. “Eventually, it’s just the right weather conditions and the right accidents and mistakes—or even a lightning strike” that will lead to a fire.

But according to Los Angeles Fire Dept. (LAFD) Captain Erik Scott, while the likelihood of a small fire breaking out in Griffith Park is very high, another large one on the scale of the 2007 fire is unlikely.

“We jump on these fires immediately [while they are still small], with a very large response,” said Scott, who said firefighters pay close attention to “fire weather”—hot, dry and windy conditions that increase the probability of brush fires—and allocate extra resources to high-risk areas such as Griffith Park.

According to Scott, during October alone, there were multiple small brush fires in Los Angeles, often started by sparks from power lines, cigarettes and catalytic converters among other causes, but firefighters were able to extinguish them quickly.

“Because we’re prepared and rapidly respond, we are able to keep the vast majority [of brush fires] small, and you probably haven’t even heard about them,” said Scott.

In the case of larger fires, said Scott, the LAFD can request extra help from neighboring fire departments, such as those in Glendale, Burbank or Pasadena through what’s known as a “mutual aid” system.

“What goes around comes around with mutual aid systems,” said Scott, who said the LAFD sent firefighters to help battle the wine country fires, but also received help battling September’s La Tuna fire.

Yet while the spate of recent fires has sent several local firefighters to other regions, according to Scott, the LAFD is sure to keep the majority of first responders close to home.

“We will never send out resources to an area if it would jeopardize our response to local communities within Los Angeles,” he said.

According to Scott, in addition to mutual aid, firefighters need residents’ help as well.

Those living near Griffith Park should ensure they have adequate “brush clearance” within 200 feet their home, said Scott. In other words, grass and weeds should be trimmed to three inches; the bottom third should be trimmed off of bushes and the bottom six feet off of trees. Trees should additionally have a clearance of at least five feet around roofs and 10 feet near chimneys.

“Brush clearance is a way that residents can join the fire department, so to speak,” said Scott. “When we get on scene and we see that proper brush clearance, we are able to then put firefighters between the wall of flames and that home.”

According to Scott, trees and bushes in a properly kept yard should look a bit like “lollipops,” as such yard maintenance is the best way to ensure a home remains intact during a wildfire.

During the La Tuna fire, said Scott, “1,400 homes came within 200 feet of flame and only five of those were destroyed. This was due to the outstanding job of firefighters, but also proper brush clearance” by homeowners.

Additionally, Scott recommends residents follow a “ready, set, go” protocol.

Residents should “ready” their home with proper brush clearance, remove shake and shingle roofs, have an evacuation plan with a pre-determined route, and know what they plan to take with them.

When a wildfire threatens the area, residents should get “set” by grabbing everything they plan to bring with them and put it in the car. They should also bring outdoor flammables, such as wooden patio furniture or anything else that could catch a spark, indoors.

And of course, when residents are told to evacuate, they should “go” immediately.

But ultimately, said Scott, those living in fire-prone areas should trust their instincts.

“You don’t have to wait to be told to leave,” said Scott. “If you feel unsafe, you can always leave early.”


Credit: Los Feliz Ledger

 

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SCMA Meeting May 10th — Guest Speaker Announcement

 

 

The SCMA Meeting on May 10th will feature a very special guest speaker. Retired Chief Scott Edson, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, will speak on the following:

  • An introduction to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD);
  • The current analog LASD Communications System;
  • Public Safety Answering Points and Next Generation 911;
  • The new digital Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS);

Scott’s biography:

Chief Scott Edson retired in March, 2017, with over 39 years of law enforcement experience with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD).  His immediate past assignment was as the Division Chief of Special Operations Division which included Counterterrorism, the SWAT Team, Air Operations, Crime Analysis and Intelligence, Street Gang Investigations, Emergency Management, Crisis Negotiations, Arson and Explosives, and Mental Evaluation Teams.  His prior assignments included communications, technology, investigations, patrol and custody. 

Chief Edson is a nationally recognized leader in the area of Information Sharing, Homeland Security, Communications and Technology. He participates on many Federal, State and Local committees and working groups, and is an active member of many associations, including Chair of the International Public Safety Association, Board of Directors.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology Management and an Associate of Arts degree in Administration of Justice.

Chief Edson is also an Amateur Radio Operator and was licensed in 1991 so he could literally hang out of helicopters holding a video camera connected to a packet radio system!  He transmitted live a bird’s eye view of an incident back to a command post so the incident commander could make educated decisions based on what he saw on the real time video feed.  His call sign is W6EDS (www.W6EDS.us)

Chief Edson was not retired long!  After only one day of retirement he started his new career as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, also known as, LA-RICS.  LA-RICS is a half a billion dollar public safety voice and data communications system for the 34,000 first and secondary responders in the county.  Details on LA-RICS can be found at www.LA-RICS.org

We think you will find Scott’s information very interesting and I encourage you to come to the meeting if at all possible. 

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LAPD to Begin Using the World’s First ‘Pursuit-Rated’ Hybrid Patrol Car

 

Ford Motor Co. has unveiled the world’s first “pursuit-rated” hybrid police car and the Los Angeles Police Department may be among the first agencies to have one.

Chief Charlie Beck and LAPD officers were expected to help introduce the vehicle at a Monday morning ceremony in Los Angeles.

The Ford Police Responder Hybrid Sedan started life as a Ford Fusion before engineers gave it the law enforcement treatment by upgrading the suspension, beefing up the brakes, adding different wheels and tires, attaching a skid plate and altering the seats so they have room for police utility belts and include an “anti-stab” plate to protect officers from sharp instruments coming from the back seat.

It won its world-first “pursuit-rated” stripes in testing by Michigan State Police and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Ford said in announcing the new vehicle.

The Responder is driven by Ford’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine mated to an electric motor powered by a 1.4-kilowatt lithium ion battery. That powertrain, Ford said, will get an EPA-estimated 38 miles per gallon — more than twice the fuel economy in Ford’s current police vehicle, the Interceptor.

Ford hasn’t published specifications on the new vehicle yet, but Arie Groeneveld, of the company’s police programs department, said the Responder will accelerate from zero to 60 mph at about the same rate as the Crown Victoria-based Interceptor police vehicle.

That car scored well in 2016 law enforcement testing. In one test, the Interceptor went zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds, ahead of Dodge’s Charger police vehicle’s 6.6 seconds and Chevrolet’s police Caprice, at 6.7 seconds.

Pricing has not been announced, but hybrid vehicles typically cost more than their internal combustion engine counterparts. Ford executives said fuel savings should pay for the higher cost within one year.

Ford expects the Responder to do well.

“Cities have been asking us for solutions to reduce carbon emissions and costs, and agencies have been asking for greener police cars and greener pursuit vehicles,” said Kevin Koswick, director of Ford’s lease and remarking operations in North America. “We saw a need and we thought we could fulfill it.”

The Responder will go into production early next year. LAPD units could be driving them by late 2018.

Police representatives would not say, prior to the Monday morning event, to what degree the department will invest in the hybrid vehicles.

But Public Information Director Josh Rubenstein said the LAPD is committed to purchasing 300 hybrid and hybrid electric plug-in vehicles by 2020, and to build charging stations and infrastructure to support them.

The department is also committed to deploying battery electric vehicles in certain divisions within the next five years, Rubenstein said.

Ford has done well with police vehicles. For years, many departments relied upon the Crown Victoria for law enforcement duties. Today, Ford claims 63% of the U.S. police patrol pie and says it sells about 32,000 Interceptors a year.

The Responder is part of Ford’s earlier-announced plan to invest $4.5 billion in automobile electrification over the next five years.

Among the 13 new vehicles scheduled to emerge from that program are a hybrid Mustang, a hybrid F-150 pickup truck and a 300-mile-range battery electric vehicle.

Source: LA Times

 

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Dispatchers Take Heat as the ‘First First Responders,’ So this Week, Show Them Some Love

Dispatcher Heather Champlin takes calls at a 911 dispatch station at Anaheim PD. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The woman’s screams were terrifying.

The anguished wails were all that Anaheim PD Dispatcher Heather Champlin heard when she took the 911 call.

Hamplin wondered if the woman had been violently attacked.

Since she had called from a landline, the caller’s address popped up on Champlin’s screen.

After several seconds that seemed to stretch into minutes, Champlin finally was able to get the caller to tell her what was wrong.

“There’s a rat in my house!”

Police dispatchers pretty much have heard it all.

With April 9th, marking the start of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which runs through April 15, Behind the Badge met with APD dispatchers and their managers about a profession that obviously is critical to law enforcement, but often misunderstood by the general public.

Stories?

Dispatchers have tons of them, from the funny — like the rat-phobic woman, or the 911 calls that come every Thanksgiving about how to cook a turkey — to the heartbreakingly tragic.

And dispatchers often are at the receiving end of streams of profanity-laden invective, such as when callers from around the country recently flooded APD phone lines to criticize an off-duty LAPD officer who fired his gun during a confrontation with a group of teenagers in his front yard.

Through it all, police dispatchers are tasked with remaining calm, cool and courteous.

“Dispatchers are the unsung heroes (of the police department),” said Kurt Wallace, Communications Manager, Support Services Division, APD. “They are the ‘first first responders,’ and the calming voice in the storm.”

Added Wallace, who started at the APD as a dispatcher in 1997 and has managed the unit since January 2009: “It’s a very difficult job, but it’s rewarding in that we truly make a difference.”

Dispatcher Lesley DiBenedetto works on one of the 911 dispatch stations at the Anaheim PD. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

During National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, patrol officers typically visit dispatchers to tell them how much they’re appreciated.

Their bosses set up taco and breakfast bars, and during the week dispatchers are allowed to wear civilian clothes to work instead of their dark-blue wool uniforms.

For these seven days, APD dispatchers will take all the love they can get.

“To me, having been a deputy and then coming here, this job is harder,” said Rick Johnson, a dispatcher at the APD for 10 years. Johnson previously was a deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. An injury forced him to medically retire after seven years.

“As a deputy, you’re on one call at a time, and usually you are on it for a while,” Johnson said. “As a dispatcher, you have to know what’s going on with everything.”

Indeed, multitasking is a requirement.

Every few hours during their 12-hour shifts, dispatchers rotate from being call takers — answering all 911 as well as non-emergency calls — to working the radios, when they send patrol officers out on calls and answer their questions.

If a call starts to go south, with a caller berating a dispatcher or the conversation getting heated, supervisors will take over the call.

Many callers don’t understand why dispatchers ask so many questions, but that’s their job: to find out where the caller is and what their emergency is.

“People get angry that we ask so many questions,” Champlin says.

She recalls asking a caller for a description of a suspect.

“He’s about my height,” the caller responded.

No help.

Also typical are callers, when asked where they are, simple say, “I’m in Anaheim.”

No help, either.

Kurt Wallace, communications manager, Operations Support Division, for the Anaheim Police Department. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

APD dispatchers, in addition to their challenging work, face additional challenges.

The unit currently is understaffed, said Wallace, who oversees five communications supervisors, four senior dispatchers and 26 full-time dispatchers. There currently are five dispatcher openings. The APD will fill them in a couple of weeks, Wallace said, but it will take a year for each of them to become fully trained.

Also, the nature of the job is changing.

A couple of decades ago, dispatchers sent officers on calls, and that was pretty much that.

These days, said Wallace, members of the public increasingly call dispatchers to complain about such social issues as homeless encampments. And dispatchers increasingly assist officers in the field by doing basic background checks on suspects for warrants and other issues.

“Just as police officers increasingly are being pulled in different directions,” Wallace said, “so are dispatchers.”

There is a nationwide push, he said, for the job of dispatcher to be reclassified from a clerical position to a public safety position, which could have ramifications for retirement and other benefits.

Another challenge: The advent of cell phones has translated to an increased volume of 911 calls, with about 75 percent of all 911 calls in Anaheim now coming from cell phones.

APD dispatchers, who work 12½-hour shifts with a one-hour break, now process about 600,000 calls a year. About 180,000 to 190,000 of these are 911 calls. Of the 911 calls, maybe 25 percent are true emergencies.

Beginning in around 2006, the APD started experiencing a marked increase in 911 calls, Wallace said.

In 1997, the agency’s dispatchers processed 128,530 911 calls. Last year, APD dispatchers processed 150,581 911 calls, which is on the low end when compared to 190,000-plus in 2012.

It used to be that all 911 calls made from cell phone went directly to the California Highway Patrol. Some still do, of course, but beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such calls went to agencies located near where the calls were coming from.

The nature of 911 calls from cell phones is evolving, which will require further training for dispatchers, Wallace said. The APD is in the process of working with other 911 centers in O.C. to figure out a uniform system of dealing with 911 texting, which is about a year away, and the ability of people to text pictures and videos to 911, which is still a few years away.

“Those will be the next evolutions of 911 calls,” Wallace said.

Regarding cell phones, the public seems to believe that if they make a 911 call on their cell phone, dispatchers know exactly where they are.

Not so, Wallace said.

On newer cell phones, 911 calls yield between 90 and 95 percent accuracy within 10 meters, he said. This gives dispatchers a very good idea of where the call is coming from, but in a large setting like a college campus or an apartment complex, more information is needed to get officers to where they need to go.

John Carter, an APD dispatch supervisor, said quality-assurance checks are routinely done to make sure dispatchers are providing the best service possible.

He says the job can wear on dispatchers, who deal with the worst moments of people’s lives constantly throughout a shift.

“You can get desensitized to all the bad stuff that happens,” Carter said. “When I get home, I don’t watch the news. Dispatchers experience a lot of the ugliness in the world. It’s important to have a healthy outlet.”

Added Johnson: “You need a high level of emotional intelligence not to take things personally.”

Source: Behindthebadgeoc.com

 

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