This week, the class is back to its original schedule and I make sure I am early. However, we all must wait for the entire class to arrive before being let in to the training room so being early isn’t necessarily fruitful. It does, however, give me a chance to get to know the few others who are also early.
One is hoping to eventually become a Reserve Officer. His enthusiasm bubbles over. Another announces he is 70 years old and almost seems surprised that he is doing this. I feel better hearing his age, as he is older than I am. (Nope, not telling.)
Finally most of the class have arrived as the clock strikes 6 p.m. Training Supervisor Lt. Rick Peeples opens the door to the inner sanctum and comments that almost everyone has arrived so why don’t we come in. It is obvious we have been watched on a CCTV system. How else would he know we were almost all here?
We file into the training room, which, by the way, is a room filled with skinny tables and chairs and a large screen for film, Power Point, etc.
We are greeted by Corporal Ricci Fowler, Peeples and Dispatcher Pam Curtiss.
Curtiss starts us off. She describes the job of the Summerville dispatchers in detail.
“It’s a high stress job,” she says. “The most important thing we ask of the public is to take a deep breath, calm down and answer each of our questions.”
The questions, she says, are crucial for response. In order to get a unit or fire engine responding, dispatchers need to know what the emergency is and the exact address.
The other important thing the public needs to know is that 911 is only for something “happening now!”
“Don’t call us to ask a phone number or tell about something that has already happened or has been on going of whatever,” she says. “We only have three phone lines into 911 and if one is tied up with a non-emergency, a real emergency can’t get through.”
There are normally three dispatchers on duty each shift - three eight-hour shifts - one handles police, one NCIC (National Criminal Information Center) and one for fire.
The busiest is the police dispatcher who not only has to handle incoming emergency calls but also has to keep track of all the SPD police officers in the field. It is his or her job to ensure the safety of the officers in that if an officer needs backup, s/he needs to know in order to send it.
This dispatcher’s job is multi-tasking at its most intense. Anyone who has listened to a scanner knows that there are moments during most every shift, where there are multiple events ongoing needing multiple responses. It is the police dispatcher’s job to make sure each event gets the response it needs and all the officers are accounted for.
The records dispatcher is asked to look up such records as driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, wants and warrants, serial numbers, etc.
For example, an officer pulls someone over for a traffic violation. He then calls into dispatch and ask that the driver’s license and registration be “run.” The dispatcher puts the info into DMV and lets the officer know if the driver’s license and registration is valid, if there are any outstanding warrants against the individual or if the individual is wanted by law enforcement.
Or, an officer finds articles that may have been stolen. The dispatcher runs the serial numbers through NCIC to see if they are.
The fire dispatcher takes fire and first responder calls. This is probably the least busy of the three so that dispatcher is most likely to also be the call-taker - the one who initially answers a 911 call.
The system is set up with computers that communicate so if the call-taker gets a police needed call, the information typed into their computer will show up on the police dispatcher’s computer screen enabling them to relay the information in real time to the officer they are sending to the scene.
Next up is Corporal Fowler who is in charge of accreditation for SPD. The department is accredited by the state which, she says, means the department’s standards are higher than most.
“It means our standards set us above the rest,” she explains. For the next hour, Fowler describes the accreditation process. In what could be a stultifying dissertation, Fowler manages to make it fascinating. Her enthusiasm and obvious passion for the job, embraces the class and has it focused and interacting.
She is open and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the department. Its strengths include its mission to serve, its high standards and the caliber of training. Its weakness comes to the fore in the salaries it can pay.
“Officers who are paying off student loans can barely make ends meet,” she says. “We have officers who barely take home $700 in their paycheck.”
This is why so many will do extra duty or have second jobs, she says. Her job is to make sure that the extra duty/second job doesn’t conflict with the primary job in that the officers are scheduled for their primary duty in a way that ensures they get enough rest. It’s a safety issue, she notes.
Every three years, the department has to be reaccredited, she says. For this, she has to provide the state with proof that it meets more than 460 standards for each of the three years between accreditations. This is a full time job for her.
Finally Peeples take the class and describes the training that SPD requires of its officers. In addition to the 12 weeks of live-in, full-time Police Academy training in Columbia that starts off an officer’s career, there are countless hours of on-going, in-house training that they participate in.
He hands us a sheet with the totals for one year - September 2013 to September 2013 - that shows more than 20,815 hours of training.
I quickly pull out my phone and open the calculator. Surely this is more hours than there actually are in a year.
Then I understand. Not every officer takes every class. In fact some 4,211 officers took classes that year. Far more than are employed at SPD.
Peeples explains that the classes often include officers from other agencies and SPD officer will take classes offered by other agencies as well. Nevertheless, it is impressive.
The state mandates 40 hours of in-house training per officer per year to keep accreditation. SPD offers much more.
So in addition, when a new officer graduates from the Academy, he or she is then assigned to a Field Training Officer (FTO) for the next nine weeks or 360 hours. Only then, is s/he sent out on their own.
Peeples describes an Academy Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (driving class). Trainees are tested and have to drive a complicated course (that replicates real life) in a defined amount of time. The catch? If they hit even one cone, they have failed the entire Academy and are sent home. It is then up to their chief if he wants to pay to send them back to the academy to retake it. Serious driving course.
It needs to be. If an officer wrecks a police car and it is the officer’s fault, then the insurance deductible comes out of his pay.
Peeples then touches on the SPD Reserve Officer program. These folks are volunteers. They are never paid for the work they do. They are trained the same way full-time officers are except in-house. They ride with an FTO (on their own time). Most work full-time jobs and then come to the SPD at night for their training.
Once trained, they function exactly the same as a full-time officer.
“No one knows if the officer responding to a call is full-time or reserve,” says Peeples.
The department, while it doesn’t pay these officers, does supply everything they need in the way of uniform and equipment.
SPD has 28 reserve officer, he says, and, although it could use more, it can’t afford any more. Outfitting these officers is a hefty expense, he notes.
o Uniform (times three) $300
o Gun $700
o Taser $500
o Equipment belt $200
o Kevlar vest $600
o Boots $100
o Badge $50
o Nameplate $10
o Radio $5,000
And this is not all the department supplies. Multiply that by 28 reserves…$208,880.
It is now 9 p.m. Only Peeples seems to notice the time. The rest of us are so into what we are learning that they could have continued for another hour.
Many hang back to have a one-on-one conversation with Fowler, Peeples and Curtiss.
As I walk to my car I have a new respect for this department and its officers.