The quickest way of opening the eyes of the people is to find the means of making them descend to particulars, seeing that to look at things only in a general way deceives them.…
--Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses
One morning at about 8:10, a friend of mine named Robert heard a helicopter repeatedly buzzing the San Francisco Ternderloin area, where he lives.
Thinking that a fire or police action might be in the works, he called the non-emergency number of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD): (415) 553-0123.
And he got a recorded message.
This told him–in English–what he already knew: He had reached the San Francisco Police Department.
Then it told him this again in Spanish. Then again in Cantonese. Then came a series of high-pitched squeals–presumably for those who are hard-of-hearing.
Then the line went dead, and another recorded voice told Robert: “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”
At that point, Robert decided to waste no more time trying to learn if there was an emergency going on in his area. Or, to put it more accurately, he decided to waste no more time trying to learn this from the SFPD.
Instead, Robert turned on his TV and checked all the local news channels. When he didn’t see anyone reporting a raging fire or police sealing off an area, he decided there probably wasn’t anything to worry about.
But later on he decided to call the SFPD once again–to complain at a level he believed would attain results.
That level was the office of its chief, Greg Suhr.
Robert didn’t expect to reach the chief himself. But he didn’t have to: Reaching Suhr’s secretary should serve the same purpose.
The secretary he reached turned out to be a sworn officer of the agency. She patiently heard out Robert’s complaint. And she totally agreed with it.
She also agreed that this was a longstanding problem with the SFPD–citizens not being able to get through for help because of an ineffective communications system.
Finally, she agreed with Robert that the situation counted as a major PR disaster for her agency. People who become disgusted and/or disallusioned with a police department’s phone system aren’t likely to trust that agency with their cooperation–or their lives.
Then she had a surprise for Robert: Like him, she had at times been unable to reach a live dispatcher–even when calling 9-1-1.
She added that the police department did not handle its own dispatch work. This had been farmed out long ago to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM).
She said that the SFPD didn’t have any control–or even influence–over SFDEM, which operated as an independent agency.
Robert suggested that it was definitely in the best interests of the SFPD for someone at its highest level to contact SFDEM and demand major reforms. Or to find another agency that would take its dispatcher responsibilities seriously.
The chief’s secretary said she would pass along Robert’s comments to the proper authority.
Will anything change? Not likely, barring a miracle.
There are few events more frightening and frustrating than having to call the police, fire department or paramedics during an emergency–and get a recorded message.
Whether intended or not, the message this sends the caller can only be: “Your call is simply not important to us–and neither are you. We’ll get to you when we feel like it.”
When people call the police or fire department, they’re usually frightened–for themselves or others. They know that, in a fire or crime or medical emergency, literally second counts.
It’s going to take the police or fire or paramedics several minutes to arrive–assuming they don’t get caught up in a traffic snarl.
And it’s going to take them even longer to arrive if it takes the caller several minutes to reach them with a request for help.
This is the sort of bread-and-butter issue that local authorities–who operate police and fire departments–should take most seriously.
Mayors and council members should not expect to be treated with respect when their constituents are treated so disrespectfully in a time of crisis.
And citizens aren’t stupid. They can easily tell lies from truths.
Lies such as: “We’d like to put in a new communications system, but we can’t afford it due to budget cuts.”
And truths such as: While San Francisco faced a $229 million deficit for the fiscal year, 2012, it nevertheless found untold monies to tap after the San Francisco Giants won the 2011-12 World Series, 4-0.
Monies to decorate various San Francisco buildings (such as the airport) with the orange-and-black colors of the Giants. Or with the Giants logo.
San Francisco Airport–decked out with San Francisco Giants colors
Monies to throw a day-long party for the victorious Giants on October 31–Halloween.
So, in the end, it all comes down to a matter of priority–for both citizens and their elected leaders. As Robert F. Kennedy once said: “Every nation gets the kind of government it deserves–and the kind of law enforcement it insists in.”