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At This Station, It's Never Boring

February 02, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The big newsmaker in Antelope Valley on the night of Jan. 26 was Donald Dobbins, 26--a 6-foot, 4-inch 170-pounder who broke out of handcuffs and fled to a waiting Dodge while being taken to court for sentencing for multiple burglaries.

Perhaps it was the felon's heft, his straggly hair or the glassy stare in photos of him shown on local TV that drove the citizenry to call 911 in fear.

Some wanted to know if he'd been caught yet. Others reported possible Dobbins sightings. At 11 p.m., a petrified woman decided that the scuffling beneath her house was caused by Dobbins hiding in the crawl space.

"When did you first hear the noises?" the 911 operator asked.

"Right after he escaped this morning," the woman answered.

"That was 13 hours ago. . . . Why didn't you call before this?"

The woman had no answer, and the deputy--one of four on 911 duty at the Antelope Valley sheriff's station--had to make a quick decision. Was the lady a crank caller? Possibly. Was an animal making the noises? Probably. Should a radio car be sent to check it out? "Absolutely. We don't take chances," said the officer. (There was nothing under the house when police went to take a look, and Dobbins is still on the loose--although his father has been arrested for supplying the getaway car.)

Not all calls are that easy. What do you tell a person who needs immediate help because "an invisible man is hurling thunderbolts through my window"? Or the person who says, "My ex-wife and kids break into my house every night and eat the food in my fridge. They've busted all my windows."

Jan. 26 was an atypically calm night, but it was not a slow one. The deputies, all wearing headphones and seated at computers, never had a chance to stand and stretch their legs.

Antelope Valley is rated the busiest sheriff's station in Los Angeles County in terms of calls for service, says watch commander Lt. Ed Dvorak. The territory covers 350,000 people spread over 1,563 miles, to the San Bernardino and Kern county lines.

With only 43 cars to cover the area, calls sometimes stack up and citizens phone to complain about the length of time they've been waiting even on a relatively tranquil night like this.

Of the roughly 800 calls that came in during the 4-p.m.-to-midnight shift last Friday, about 40% were not emergencies except in the minds of the callers.

This percentage remains constant, says Dvorak, who oversees the operation. "We get dogs barking too loudly, cats caught in trees," he says, and a variety of more serious domestic problems from landlord-tenant disputes to child custody and visitation problems.

On the night of Jan. 26, a landlord phoned 911 to say his tenant had paid him with a bad check. A few divorced parents called to say their spouses had refused to hand over the kids for the weekend, even though the court had approved the visit.

"If the court order says every first and third weekend, or every second and fourth weekend we can help you," the deputies tell the callers. "But if the order is vague, and just says every other weekend, we have no way of knowing whether this is your weekend or not to be with the kids. You might call your lawyer and ask to have the order written more specifically so we can help you enforce it."

The station is antiquated, as well as the technology of the 911 facilities within it.

As calls are answered by deputies, the caller's address automatically shows up on the computer screen. If the call is considered an emergency, the deputy quickly looks up the cross streets of the address in a Thomas Guide, assigns a priority to the call, and routes the computerized information to a dispatcher sitting nearby.

The dispatcher sends the information to a call-receiving center in downtown Los Angeles. From there operators relay the information via radio back to specific sheriff's cars in Antelope Valley. They also relay the printed information to that car's little black box, also called an MDT or mobile digital terminal.

A new Antelope Valley sheriff's station is scheduled to open in early April, with modernized equipment.

But one thing probably won't change: the nature of the calls.

"People have different perceptions of what an emergency is," Dvorak says. In his opinion, 911 shouldn't even be used by people whose homes have been broken into and the burglar is long gone.

"What's the emergency?" he asks.

When the new facility opens, he says, there may be a second number for semi-emergencies, so people can voice their problems and fears without tying up lines intended for cases in which lives are at stake.

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