"911, what is your emergency?" PoM Dispatch directs police, fire throughout Army housing

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Story by Brian Lepley on 12/04/2017
The neighbor hears screams, heavy footsteps. Items being thrown.

On the receiving end of the 911 call, Presidio of Monterey Emergency Services dispatcher Melodie Sumner sends an officer to the Ord Military Community housing unit.

"When officers arrived, they found the resident was having a hard time controlling her dog, not a domestic violence situation," Sumner says.

Presidio police and fire departments serve the residents of PoM housing units spread across Monterey and Seaside. Those residents' connection to first responders is through the dispatchers working in building 4468.

"We've got a unique 911 and dispatch system here, handling both police and fire, military and civilian populations, and I've always been impressed by how professionally our operators handle the distinct challenges they face daily," said Shawn Marshall, PoM director of emergency services. "There's a diverse population living in our housing area and they're as safe as any in Monterey County thanks to all of our personnel's efforts."

Dispatch is a nerve center, coordinating police, fire and security guards across the Presidio, Ord Military Community and La Mesa.

As a Friday in late May turns from 10:59 to 11 p.m. in the cramped dispatch room, the system starts humming. The calls are traffic stops from PoM police. Sumner and Merry Bell provide information about the vehicle, the driver, and the car's owner (not always the same person) from law enforcement databases.

"I enjoy working in emergency services and I think I work well in a high stress environment," Sumner said. "There's a sense of satisfaction when I am able to assist a person in need, knowing that the team I work with resolved the current emergency."

Spending her weekdays studying at Monterey Peninsula College to be a nurse permits Sumner to work the night shift. After starting as a medical dispatcher for Monterey in 2007 she's been with PoM DES since 2012.

"We have seven dispatchers for our fire and police. We'd like to have more but it's a hiring problem," said Police Capt. Joseph Daniels. "There is one dispatcher on duty at all times. For peak hours, we have two."

La Mesa and OMC housing areas are open communities, presenting unique challenges to emergency services and dispatch.

Of the 2,130 housing units there, more than 1,400 have military families. The rest have non-military affiliated civilians, civilian employees of PoM and California State University-Monterey Bay students.

It may be startling for service members and their families to see college students living next door in Army housing, Sumner said, "But do they have a right to be there."

Another unique aspect of OMC housing the dispatch deals with is the wildlife.

"The public tends to forget we have built our community in a rural area," Bell said. "Don't be surprised when you open your back door to find a raccoon eating the pet food you left out."

Dispatch understands when residents mistake animal sounds for a potential break-in but reports of wildlife sightings will not cause the police or fire to roll.

"If you see a wild animal and it's not attacking anything, there is nothing PoM PD can do about it," Sumner said. "If you see an injured wild animal, and it is mobile, SPCA wildlife section will not respond. They do not chase wild animals."

The main police phone number (831 242-7851) should be used for routine matters, like illegally parked cars or concerns about suspicious people, Bell says. Use 911 for emergencies only and callers should expect dispatchers to ask many questions.

"Cell phone 911 calls do not provide your exact location. We cannot send you help if you do not know where you are," Sumner said. "Be prepared to give your name, a phone number if your call is dropped, explain why you are calling, what the emergency is, and descriptions of persons or vehicles related."

Use of -7851 keeps PoM 911 clear, an important distinction since police and fire here share the dispatchers and there is a personnel shortage.
"We get frivolous calls on 911, calls that aren't emergencies, and we'd like that to be used only for emergencies," said Bell, citing the wildlife calls and even parents calling 911 about misbehaving children.

"Calls come in about unruly teenagers, who have gotten to an age where parents say can't control them anymore and they're at their wit's end," she said. "You understand the frustration but there's not much we can do as police. If a crime hasn't been committed, what can be done?"

Cell phone 911 calls from housing areas can land at different call centers, depending on the caller's location on the former Fort Ord.

"Calls may initially go to California Highway Patrol or Monterey County communications," Bell said. "Remember, this is different from any other military installation you have lived on. OMC is open to the public."

The proximity of Seaside and Marina to OMC can involve jurisdiction issues. PoM police and fire have productive relationships with those municipalities, according to Marshall. Additional challenges face PoM Dispatch in communicating, deciding on, and requesting first responders from all these agencies.

Sumner and Bell are PoM's most experienced dispatchers, a job, they both agree, that is not suited for long term work. While they enjoy being part of public safety, a dispatcher can deal with humanity at its worst. The toll is hard.

Bell has dealt with earthquakes and an officer being shot in her previous work with the state of California.

"You can't let the job get to you. If you do, you don't last very long," she said. "You can't really turn off your feelings, you have to deal with them. You have to learn to let it go when you go home.

"There are people who can handle it for several years, and then your body just tells you you can't do it anymore.'"

Sumner's exit strategy is her nursing degree. Before her decade in dispatch, she was a paramedic.

"A paramedic saved my life when I was four years old. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to be a paramedic when I grew up," she said. "I am excited about my future as a registered nurse, taking care of patients, like the paramedic who saved my life and made me feel safe."

A public safety career resembles the military ethos: selfless service to others, mission first, handling high levels of stress. For Bell, it's meant decades at the dispatch computer screens on the headset. For Sumner, it's an evolution from EMT to paramedic to dispatcher to RN.

Shepherding Presidio of Monterey firemen, police and security guards through their shifts is what these ladies do, night, day, weekends, holidays. It's a unique, specialized skill with one goal always.

"You have to realize that a good day is when nobody dies and everyone gets to go home," Bell said. "That's a good day."

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