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Inside LAPD's Metropolitan Communications Dispatch Center

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Friday, April 16, 2010, at 04:21PM
Dispatch_ Ed Fuentes

A mother on the verge of tears calls 9-1-1 to report that her young son isn't breathing correctly. The dispatcher answers with a smooth, quick voice, asking if she needs paramedics. Sitting at his console, he checks the address on one monitor while glancing at another to confirm the location, all while calming the caller. The dispatcher asks a few more details, reassures her, places her on hold to check on units, then quickly returns to get information and give instructions. "It's ok. He's ok, he's alright," says the relieved young mother. Both voices say thank you and hang up.

The call between two strangers took 23 seconds.

"Medical calls, those are what you want to get so you can help somebody," says 9-1-1 dispatcher James Sumbi, sitting behind a bank of monitors at the Metropolitan Communications Dispatch Center. "We don’t get a lot of emergencies. They are mostly mundane calls or kids playing, or with cell phones you get a lot of hangups or butt-calls.”

Butt calls?

“Yes. You know the ones where people sit on their phone, not knowing they called us."

Sometimes technology makes fielding emergency calls more difficult than the days when an operator with a phone and a Thomas Brothers guide filled out a card and slipped it on a conveyor belt to be dispatched to the appropriate department.

Now LAPD dispatchers, officially known as Police Service Representatives, or PSRs, operate from a console with 6 flat-panel computer screens on a system that is still keeping up with technology. The facility has been in operation since 2001, and is being upgraded from the original 4-monitors to a system that will also access information from modern communications.

The off-the shelf system includes a MapStar screen that plots cell phones towers, allowing a close location hit; a monitor that documents the calls taken in and transferred to LAFD; and a computer aided dispatch that shows unit status. It is now being upgraded to integrate closer with a previous system that LAPD command still uses, says Celeste Iles, PSR III and dispatcher trainer. She points out to the far left a disconnected screen that will soon allow websites to be a tool. "We are getting ready for callers to send text messages or upload videos."

That use of technology and communication to a city at large is also the subject of “In The Eye of The Storm,” a 2002 public art piece that marks those seconds when a call to 9-1-1 is made and an anonymous connection is charged with urgency. That piece sits between the dispatch center and Parker Center, once acting as a visual connection to where emergency calls are handled and the department that responds to them.

Still, it is the people that make it work. Since 1991, National Dispatcher Week has honored those with the skill of communicating with tone and inflection to gather information during human crisis. LAPD marked the occasion this week with tours and a visit from Chief Charlie Beck.

"The real pressure is qualifying to get the job, then taking the first shooting call, or the first robbery in progress," explains Sumbi, who notes that those who are too sensitive tend not not make the cut. "People with life experience, who are decisive and can multi-task and not be shocked that someone is willing to shoot another. We can't teach how to have common sense. You need to know something is amiss."

Those decisions are made from a flurry of calls that in 2009 reached 3,630,188, peaking in the summer with 192,807 calls in July and 192,202 in August.

Call to 9-1-1 totaled 2,143,907, the rest being 7-digit calls that the center also handles.

Yet, with only 15% of the calls being an actual emergency, the real challenge for dispatchers is staying ready while mulling through those who decide 9-1-1 is a source to get directions to City Hall, or make a complaint, or demand a tree be trimmed.

3-1-1 is the city services line created to ease the load of non-emergency calls made to 1st and Los Angeles.

Being robbed? Call 9-1-1 to save your butt.


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