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Emergency Central : In L.A., Operators Have Their Hands Full With Crises--and With the Crank Callers Who Do a Number on 911

February 02, 1996|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So get up

'a get, get, get down

911 is a joke in yo' town

--hip-hop group Public Enemy

*

911. Recently, the city of Los Angeles' emergency dispatch system has come under fire for being flawed and antiquated. What's life like at the operators' end of the line? The following reports are from the 911 front at the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department station in Antelope Valley and the Irvine Police Department.

*

There are 4 million stories in the naked city and they all seem to converge four floors under City Hall East.

That's where Los Angeles Police Department operators answer millions of 911 calls a year--from the mundane to the macabre.

Cher reports a prowler. Nicole Brown Simpson cries for help.

One 911 caller is an operator's sister. A prank caller is an operator's grandson.

Here, they handle each and every call with icy calm.

Blood, sweat and tears evoke nary a shift in the seat for these highly skilled workers, who overwhelmingly are women.

They work tough time in the hot seat, then drive home to some of the most placid suburbs in Southern California, taking themselves far away from the surreal heartbeat of L.A.

Veteran operator Audrinee Johnson lives in a new townhouse in the easternmost stretches of L.A. County. She scuba dives to mute out sound and shops to relieve stress.

"Most of us don't live in the city," says Johnson, who has a baby-doll face and burgundy nails. When asked why they don't live closer, she raises her eyebrows, as if she has to explain.

*

A recent swing shift--3 to 11 p.m.--starts with five hang-ups--mostly with kids giggling in the background. But the mood changes when Johnson answers the line one more time:

"911 operator," she says. "What's your emergency?"

"Leave me alone--and I mean it!" a woman shouts away from the phone.

"Get your m------------ ass out of my m------------ house," shouts a man in the background.

There's screaming.

Johnson gives the call the highest priority, pressing a green button on her wide, complicated console. She dispatches the nearest patrol car.

"Her life is definitely being threatened," says the 10-year veteran operator.

One of Johnson's two computer monitors shows her that an officer arrived one minute after the call--a rare response time.

Most of the time the system doesn't work this well.

One out of three phone calls is not answered within the department's goal of 10 seconds. And last year 325,000 calls went unanswered, according to LAPD statistics.

But that doesn't mean operators and police are to blame, though they have shouldered much of the recent criticism. Like any democratic system, 911 depends on the goodwill of citizens. But citizens clearly abuse the trust that 911 requires. More than half of all calls are not emergencies. Very often--as was the case on a recent weeknight--the calls are ridiculously inappropriate.

Overheard:

"Hello?" says a caller.

"This is 911," says operator Tanya Larson, 23.

"Oh," says the caller. "Sorry." He hangs up.

Then another call.

"No, this is not Mexico," Larson says. "This is 911. You need to hang up and dial 011. . . ."

And another.

"This is 911," she says. "I don't give out the time."

*

Operators battle noncritical calls by hanging up, transferring to nonemergency operators and even using tricks. When very young kids call and giggle, Johnson tells them, "OK, I'm gonna take your picture."

She then activates the communications machine for the hearing-impaired, which sounds like a fax machine and scares the hell out of the little buggers.

Other frequent prank callers--some of whom are known by name--are on record in 911 computers. When they call, Johnson sends out the police--so these 911 groupies can be arrested.

"A lot of people say 911 is a joke," says Johnson, 35. But out of six recent calls, she points out, "five were hang-ups or non-emergencies."

Indeed. Operators feel like the unsung heroes of police work. They get blamed for unanswered calls (which are unanswered because they're always on the line), and they rarely get credit when police score a victory against crime.

"We're down here four floors under and we're the ones talking to these people," says Terri Moore, the operator who took Simpson's now famous call for help in 1993.

*

Of course, some things could stand improvement in this lecture hall-sized command center. Although the number of 911 calls has increased 70% since its start in 1984, the number of employees has remained the same. The radio equipment is antiquated. And the department lacks a much-needed citywide nonemergency number.

The city plans to add operators and a new radio system, and the center--dim and funky--is due to be replaced by two new state-of-the-art offices by the year 2000. The department also wants to add a citywide number for nonemergency calls.

Meanwhile, operators do what they can, talking fast and typing faster.

"You do what you gotta do," Johnson says. "Your skin has to be thick."

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