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911 DISPATCHERS KEEP CALM UNDER PRESSURE.

Byline: SUSAN ABRAM Staff Writer

WEST HILLS -- The calls come at sunrise and sunset and every second in between.

A suicide attempt. A shooting. A heart attack. A car chase.

The voices stream steadily into Judy Ruiz's ears during her eight-hour shift. Her job is to be heard, not seen. That is the motto of the Los Angeles Police Department dispatchers. They are the veins that keep information flowing from the needy, the frightened, the desperate of Los Angeles to a first-responder.

``I like it because I get to make a difference,'' Ruiz said. ``I'm that first, positive contact.''

Ruiz has been a police dispatcher for 32 years, but her tenure is rare. With a job that requires the ability to keep calm, monitor five computer screens at once, work holidays and late nights, and memorize more than 100 numerical codes for crimes and calls for service, retention of employees remains challenging.

The Los Angeles Police Department is recruiting to bulk up its list of candidates to avert a potential hiring shortage.

``Our retention rate has improved dramatically over the last four years, and we're in better shape than most law enforcement agencies, but the reason why we're recruiting is to keep it going,'' said Lt. Stan Ludwig, who oversees the Valley Communications Dispatch Center. But there is competition.

The Valley center handled 1.6million calls last year, all from the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and West Los Angeles.

Opened in 2003, the $40million dispatch center in West Hills is a replica of the structure built downtown.

Both three-story, 59,000-square-foot buildings are designed to withstand power outages and an earthquake up to a magnitude-8.3.

If one dispatch center is disabled or destroyed, the system is designed so the other can completely take over -- which became important for the city after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

Both buildings also are more aesthetically pleasing than the original. Dispatchers were once housed in the basement of City Hall, several stories below street level.

What attracts many to the job is its link to a career in law enforcement, dispatch supervisor Cathy Sotos said.

Training includes proficiency in handling police radio calls as well as emergency 911.

Emergency calls must be handled in 10 seconds or less.

``I didn't want to be an officer, but I wanted to do something in the field,'' said Sotos, whose husband works with a local sheriff's department. We have similar jobs. We understand each other.''

Newcomer Clayton Simmons said he wanted to work with police, but not as an officer.

The 31-year-old said some of the calls he gets are perplexing, including complaints about gas prices, loud parties and traffic.

Dispatchers are not allowed to argue with callers.

``We get quite a few people calling about the J.F.K. assassination,'' he said.

The most troubling are the suicides.

``The desperation in the voice ... I remember the first time I heard that,'' he said.

Car chases also can be draining on the staff, Sotos said. When a pursuit has started, a staff member rings a bell, and dispatchers stay glued to their consoles as their monitors display computerized maps, ready to help police with directions.

``You'll see everyone tighten up for those,'' Sotos said.

Dispatchers, known as police service representatives, are civilians.

Starting salaries begin about $43,000 a year with bonuses for speaking other languages and working nights.

Ludwig said young people who grew up with computers and have mastered instant messaging and talking on the telephone all at once are more likely to learn the job quicker.

``We're never laying off,'' Ludwig said. ``It's an inflation-proof job.''

susan.abram(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3664

HOW TO APPLY

To apply as a police dispatcher, visit www.lacity.org on the Web. Applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent, type at least 32 words per minute, and pass a written test and an interview. Once hired, two phases of paid training can take up to a year to complete. The starting salary is about $43,000. New hires can expect to work weekends, holidays and late-night shifts.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

(color) Los Angeles Police Department dispatcher Jacqui Dreben answers 911 calls at the Valley Dispatch Center on Thursday.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

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HOW TO APPLY (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 18, 2006
Words:715
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