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Irvine's Low Crime Rate Makes for a Low 911 Count


IRVINE — You talk about emergency calls here and they tell you about the woman who dialed 911 to ask whether she'd get in trouble for removing the do-not-remove-this-tag tag from her mattress.

Or the man reporting a boy selling candy door-to-door after hours.

Or the woman reporting a possum in her backyard licking grease from the barbecue.

There are real emergencies in this archetypal planned community, but an upscale population and an up-to-date police department have had the desired effect. Although Irvine makes up nearly 5% of Orange County's population, it has only about 2 1/2% of the county's serious crime. Less than 1% of the county's murders and robberies occur here.

And the latest FBI statistics show that Irvine has a very low crime rate: Among all the nation's cities with a population of more than 100,000, only Santa Clarita has a lower crime index.

Little wonder that of all the 911 calls in Orange County placed last Friday between 4 p.m. and midnight, only 25 went to Irvine. And eight of them were wrong numbers.

By far, the most activity that night is on the nonemergency police lines.

The owner of a pizza parlor is complaining that someone is paging people at random giving his restaurant as the call-back number.

The owner of a clothing store is complaining that there's a couple in the parking lot passionately fogging the car windows.

A man says a strange dog is in his backyard and wants someone to shoo it away. "I'll send an officer," says Deborah Gunderson, who is working the 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift. "Better make it two," the man says.

A woman calls and says it looks like some neighbors are about to start a noisy party. One of the two police cruisers designated as a "party car" for that night is dispatched.

Calls from burglar alarm companies reporting possible break-ins seem endless. "We get a ton of alarm calls," says dispatcher Luette Turner. "There are so many businesses in Irvine."

A woman calls to complain that she was ticketed for illegally parking, but there are four cars in the same spot now and they're not getting tickets.


In Orange County, when someone dials 911, the local telephone switching station relays the call to Pacific Bell's 911 switch in Santa Ana. There, a computer compares the caller's telephone number to a computerized list and determines the telephone's location code.

The code determines which police agency receives the call--the local police department, the Sheriff's Department or, if the call came from a cell phone, the Highway Patrol. Almost simultaneously, the address and business or person listed for that telephone number is flashed to the agency as well.

If the call is for firefighters or paramedics, the police dispatcher transfers the call.

The call is sent over special 911 lines that always remain open. Six lines connect to the Irvine Police Department's state-of-the-art communications center, and on this particular night, only twice were there calls on more than one line. Dispatchers say it takes a traffic accident or fire witnessed by many people to light up all the lines here. A caller getting a busy signal is a very rare event, they say.

"But you can't tell," says dispatcher Gunderson. "Sometimes, like now, it's quiet and like that all night. Sometimes you haven't got time to take a breath."

A 911 line lights up, and she answers it on the first ring.

"911 emergency." No response. "Hello, 911." Still no response, but she can hear voices in the background until the phone is hung up.

The screen beside the 911 lines automatically flashes the address and phone number from which the call was made, plus the name of the person listed for that location. Gunderson calls the number and gets an answering machine.

"Hello, is anyone home?" No response. "Pick up the phone, please." When no one answers, she dispatches a patrol car to check the house. Although there is probably nothing wrong, it's a high-priority call.

"This happens a lot," she says. "They're cleaning the phone, push the 911 button and don't even know it. It almost never turns out to be anything, but we have to check and be certain."

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