'I don't feel like it's work when I'm called in the middle of the night' to shoot an accident.
Pat Olsen chases ambulances and fire trucks for a living--with a camera.
The Bell resident and sometime city photographer--as well as a free-lancer for everything from United Press International to paramedic training manuals--has been at the scene of most major traffic accidents and fires in the Southeast area since 1967.
"That's my first love," said Olsen, 50, who first took up photography as a hobby more than 20 years ago.
The decision to make a living from photography was an easy one for Olsen, who previously ran a day-care nursery. "It looked like a way of escape," she said, noting that she gradually began specializing in emergency scene pictures. "I really enjoy that type of photography."
But her joyous avocation turned into a nightmare in 1984, when she was arrested in Whittier for interfering with a paramedic and disobeying a paramedic and a police officer at a traffic accident. She had been called out of bed by the Los Angeles County Fire Department to take pictures of county paramedics using the jaws of life, a hydraulic rescue device. According to court documents, paramedics complained that she was interfering with their work and that she had refused several requests by paramedics and police to step back from the accident scene.
Olsen was convicted in Whittier Municipal Court in 1984 but won a reversal of the first count of interfering with a paramedic, who worked for a private company. The appellate department of the Los Angeles Superior Court, which handles appeals from Municipal Court, also ordered a retrial on the second count of disobeying a police officer.
The appeals court ruled that it is not a crime to disobey the orders of a privately employed paramedic, saying that the law applies only to paramedics who are volunteers or who work for a public agency.
A retrial on the second count is necessary, the court ruled, because Olsen was convicted of both disobeying a police officer and a paramedic.
But in another twist, even that ruling was placed in limbo when the Second District state Court of Appeal agreed to hear the case because the issue of obeying a private paramedic is a "conflicting or unsettled" portion of the law, said Bob Wilson, chief deputy clerk for the court. The District Court of Appeal, one step below the state Supreme Court, will decide whether the ruling should apply statewide.
"The court decided it was an important question of law," Wilson said.
Until then, Olsen can only sit and wait.
"I thought this was all behind me," Olsen said, who added that she has become more cautious when she arrives at the scene of an accident. "I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen."
The shutterbug works mostly out of her home, where there is a police radio scanner with a speaker in every room. "If it's a big one (accident or fire), I'll know," she said, adding that she hardly ever misses a major accident in the area. Olsen has trained herself to listen for certain tones or a slight tenseness in the dispatcher's voice, she said.
At night, the scanner stays on by her bed as she sleeps with one ear open to the scanner broadcasts.
Besides free-lancing for a wire service and community newspapers, Olsen sells the bulk of her pictures to police and fire departments for magazines, paramedic training manuals, calendars and other publications that regularly publish fire and accident photos.
Frank Fording, police chief of the Bell-Cudahy Police Department, said the department often needs pictures of accidents and certain crime scenes. "After we arrive at a scene, if we believe a photograph is necessary, we'll call her," Fording said.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief John Englund said Olsen provides the department with pictures that appear every month in the department's in-house magazine, Straight Streams. "She is a very professional lady and very competent," Englund said.
Englund, who was the former assistant fire chief in the county's Huntington Park station, said he has seen Olsen at the scene of many accidents. "She was always there. . . .," Englund said.
"My main business is run out of the car. I just load up my equipment and run," she said, even if it means getting up in the early hours of the morning.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department automatically calls her at home when there is a major incident. Olsen also works for about 20 civil attorneys, who will often call upon her at all hours of the night to take pictures of accidents or other emergency situations such as an assault.
"I don't feel like it's work when I'm called in the middle of the night. I'm ready to go anytime," she said. "It's what I love to do."