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The Critical Link : 911 Calls Increase Along With Cries of Critics Who Say System Is Inadequate

March 30, 1989|GERRY BRAILO SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

It is a comparatively uneventful Saturday night in the windowless room that is Ventura County's 911 headquarters.

An 84-year-old woman calls in, horror in her voice because someone is pounding on her front door. An operator keeps her on the line, chatting calmly until a police car arrives several minutes later.

Later, another woman calls, so frightened that she is hyperventilating. Two strangers are yelling, banging on her apartment door and rattling the doorknob. When she leaves the phone for a moment to look through the peephole, her young son tells the operator:

"I've got my baseball bat in my hand, and the chair is against the door. They're after something, I don't know what." The operator stays on the line until officers arrive.

A man calls because the gas cap is missing on his truck and he wants officers to investigate. The call is not viewed as a priority, but information is passed on to the local police department.

These are the routine calls that come into the county's 911 system at a rate of about 240 a day--too many, some critics claim, for the county to respond to emergencies as efficiently as it should.

In February, Carin Becerra dialed 911 twice as club-wielding youths shattered windows and beat her handicapped son in their home near Simi Valley. On the first call, the phone rang unanswered six times. A few minutes later, her call went unanswered and she hung up after 11 rings. Her claims are verified by Ventura County Sheriff's Department records.

Finally Got Through

When she finally was connected, Becerra was told that neighbors had alerted 911 about the attack and that deputies were on the way. Deputies arrived at the foot of her secluded road in about eight minutes. Although they were in contact with Becerra by telephone, they would not come to her house until she escorted them there 45 minutes later. As many as 15 patrol cars spent the time securing the area, according to Cmdr. Bill Wade.

After a one-month investigation, the Sheriff's Department concluded that 911 calls were unanswered because operators were swamped with calls from Becerra's neighbors. The department conceded that officers made a mistake by not proceeding to the scene of the attack, which had ended by the time they arrived. Three men were arrested later.

"I had trust and faith in the system and it didn't work for me," Becerra, 49, said in an interview. "I have been told by the Sheriff's Department that the chance of this happening again are one in a million. It has traumatized me a lot. The system failed me. I never for one second believed that I wouldn't get help on 911."

Jessie Roybal, whose Camarillo neighborhood has been terrorized by gangs of Skinheads, has also had problems with the system. She said she called 911 three times in one evening last month when she saw gang members outside her house making firebombs. She was so upset that she made a public plea about 911 to the Camarillo City Council.

"It took the police 20 minutes to half an hour to get here," she said. "If they had responded quicker, they could have prevented the firebombing." The bombs damaged the lawn of a rival gang member a short distance away, deputies said. A juvenile was arrested.

Officials said the slow response stemmed not from poor communication but from a lack of available patrol cars.

"The Sheriff's Department has a large area to cover," said Cmdr. Merwyn Dowd, who is in charge of the county's 911 system. "It's not like the city of Ventura. It takes a Ventura police car seven minutes to get from one side of the city to the other."

But a few critics complain that some blame lies with the 911 system's needlessly complex structure.

The Ventura County 911 system serves the unincorporated areas of the county as well as Thousand Oaks, Fillmore, Camarillo, Moorpark and Ojai, which contract with the county for police services.

Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Simi Valley and Santa Paula have their own 911 systems, but do not have their own ambulance services. That means calls about a heart attack victim in Simi Valley or a drowning baby in Ventura must be re-routed to the county's 911 system after coming in on those communities' 911 lines, which are answered at their police departments.

'Too Many 911 Systems'

"My opinion is that there are too many 911 systems in the county," said Don Pruner, president of Pruner Health Services, a company that provides ambulance and paramedic services in eastern Ventura County. "If we had one 911 center where everything came into it, that would eliminate those extra calls. That's a better system, but there's a lot of people who don't think that way. Each agency likes to keep control, a sort of home rule."

According to the Sheriff's Department, 86,035 calls came into the county's 911 system in 1988.

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