Chapter 4


Dispatching and Other Technology

One of the things I looked forward to in transferring back to the flatland was working with a more professional dispatch system. In the Malibu region (which included Topanga), dispatches occurred over County-owned "land lines," telephone wires to each of the stations from the Malibu dispatch center located at Fire Station 65.

The system could be unreliable (we often suspected that a bird landing on a wire between Stations 65 and 69 could short-circuit our link with the outside world). Even worse in my view, most of the dispatchers at Malibu had no standard format for obtaining information from callers or reporting alarm information to the stations.

Many times, we would waste time interrogating the dispatcher, trying to get information about the location or nature of an emergency we were being dispatched to. As often as not, the dispatcher had gotten excited while talking to the reporting party and failed to ask important questions. In other cases, he would jot notes while taking information from a caller and then be unable to decipher his own notes while dispatching us. The system has since been shut down and merged with the LA dispatch, but at the time it was a frustrating symbol of the old "country fire department" that LA County Fire Department had emerged from.

Station 7 was part of the selective calling unit (SCU) network. Prior to 1956, the LA County Fire Department had linked all of its stations with leased telephone lines (each one of which was owned and maintained by Pacific Bell Telephone Co. and priced on a per-mile-per-month basis). Because of the far-flung nature of the department, its annual phone bill was reported to be the second highest for any user west of the Mississippi River. Furthermore, the system was subject to failure in the event of storms or earthquakes.

The alternative was to create a system that would dispatch by radio. To make it selective - so that individual stations could be alarmed without all stations being notified or disrupted - the selective calling units were developed. By transmitting individual sets of two consecutive tones to receivers that were tuned to activate only upon receiving their respective two-tone signal, the system could eliminate the need for expensive phone wires between the dispatch center and each of the stations.

The receivers were on and awake 24 hours a day, but they would not activate the lights and audible warning devices at a station until that particular station's two tones sounded. A tone consisted of two or more "frequencies," meaning audible or inaudible vibrations at given frequencies, or cycles per second. The cycles-per-second are measured as a Hertz (named after the guy who first discovered the concept). Thus, a 60-Hertz signal will sound or measure different than a 90-Hertz signal. A radio broadcasting at 154 Megahertz (referred to as VHF, or "very high frequency") or 465 Megahertz (referred to as UHF, or "ultra high frequency") will be inaudible to the human ear unless it is modulated.

Many of the stations on the LA dispatch network shared the same sound for the first of the two tones. When that first tone would be sounded, numerous receivers would perk up their electronic ears, so to speak, waiting for the second tone. If the second tone did not contain the peculiar set of frequencies that were programmed into a receiver, it would lapse back into its waiting mode. It wouldn't trigger the lights and claxon at its station unless and until it heard its own set of second tones.

This explains why the buzzer (claxon) would sound at station 51 almost immediately after the second tone would sound. It took only an instant for the station's receiver to recognize the tone, even though it continued to broadcast for another second or two. In multiple-station dispatches, additional two-tone signals would be heard, but we would hear the entirety of the second tone for each of those units or stations. Actually, at the physical sites of those stations, the lights would go on and a claxon or other audible warning device would sound instantly upon hearing its second tone. However, since we were hearing the actual radio broadcast of those tones from a distance, we would hear the entire duration of both tones for the other stations, even after their lights and devices were triggered.

A switch on the side of the SCU console allowed the unit to "monitor" (meaning listen to everything that was happening throughout the LA dispatch area), or to "stand-by" (meaning that other alarm activity and radio traffic could be muted until the specific SCU was triggered). It would then remain on "monitor" until re-set for "stand-by." Most stations remained on "monitor" during daytime and early evening hours but switched to "stand-by" after members started to "sack out" (go to bed).

The only way the dispatch center could know that its alarm had been received was for someone at the station to verbally acknowledge over the air. Since each station was a fixed broadcast site, they each required a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Whenever the FCC licenses a fixed broadcast site, it assigns call letters to it. Usually, they consist of three letters and three numerals (for example, KMA941 or KMG365).

FCC regulations require that broadcasters identify their station with their call letters at least once per hour if they are broadcasting continuously, or upon each use if broadcasting intermittently. Thus, when Captain Stanley received an alarm at Station 51, he would acknowledge to the dispatch center ("Station 51") and comply with FCC regulations ("KMG three six five").

In recent years, technology has improved and selective calling units have been developed with single-frequency tones. But when the LA County system was developed, the relative sensitivity of receivers required that multiple-frequency tones be used. This made the signals sound much like a child playing at the keys of an out-of-tune organ. In October 1971, Jack Webb asked musician/conductor Billy May to come to LA County Fire Station 8, where filming of some World Premiere scenes would occur.

While at Station 8, Billy May heard the sounds of the SCU system. To a firefighter, it was just background noise, but to a musical genius it was the foundation for a musical theme. Thus, the original theme music for "Emergency!" performed by Nelson Riddle and orchestra.

Anyway, back to the original point, I was glad to be working in the LA dispatch system, especially when Sam Lanier was on duty. As mentioned in "The Emergency! Companion," Sam always maintained his professional composure, never confused his role, frequently thought "around corners" to assist field commanders, and did it all with a cool baritone voice that never wavered so much as a quarter-octave. All these attributes won him his role as the voice of "Emergency!"

All the LA dispatchers were busy; thus most of them were almost unflappable. Most important was the fact that we usually got all the information we needed with the original broadcast. Most often, it was clear and concise and we could be "out of the barn" (leaving the station en-route to an emergency) in a minute or less.

Midnight at the Playboy Club

During the first half of 1970, I was studying for the final exams for my last three law school classes, and I was continuing to work on my fire company supervision textbook. Since my home was filled with all the disruptions of noisy little boys, most of my off-duty studying occurred at the LA County Law Library or at my parents' home in Monterey Park. The studying had become intense, in anticipation of the bar exam. I looked forward to coming to work, continuing the pre-fire planning, fire prevention inspections and training.

Amidst it all, we had a lot of fun; I remember going off duty at the end of numerous shifts with my stomach muscles hurting from laughing so much in the prior 24 hours.

Everybody knew that the Battalion Chief eligibility list was about to expire (they were only valid for two years). Thus, a promotional process would be held sometime during 1970. It was in the back of my mind, but I knew I wouldn't be able to study for it till after the bar exam.

At that time, promotional exam processes for Captains and Battalion Chiefs consisted of three parts: a written exam, an oral interview, and an "appraisal of promotability" (or "AP"). The AP was derived from a very subjective process. All of the department's chief officers would gather at the training center auditorium. One-by-one, the names of candidates for promotion would be posted at the front of the room.

Usually, a candidate's current chief officer would propose a score for him (between 70 and 100). In some cases, there would be no comment and the original AP score would stand. In other cases, if a candidate had somehow created a bad impression with a chief officer, that chief would offer his negative impression. Strongly held views would surface and peoples' reputations would be ravaged -- with no opportunity for them to defend themselves.

Even though the process was supposed to be secret, leaks would occur. For example, a chief officer shared with me a comment that was made when my name came up during the Captain's exam AP meeting. Reportedly, a particular chief officer issued a warning to the assembled group: "This guy someday will be the chief of the entire department, but he'll get there over the dead bodies of everybody who works for him." I never learned who had made that remark and, to this day, I'm not sure what inspired it. Whatever the intent or motivation, it didn't have a negative effect. My AP score for that exam was 100.

I suspected that several of the ranking chief officers in the department were intimidated by my education. They and others, I suspected, were beginning to view me as a threat to their own career plans. I wondered how that would affect my score if I were to compete for the Battalion Chief position.

Destiny intervened on the early morning of June 3, 1970. At Station 7, we had had a busy day, with lots of alarms for more-or-less routine events (trash fire, car fire, an elderly lady having difficulty breathing, a couple of false alarms, and two or three cancelled responses into Station 8's district). About 11:30pm, I went to bed. The next morning, I was scheduled to drive my wife and kids to Palm Springs for a swim meet, so I had arranged for the on-coming Captain to arrive early.

At 12:05am, the alarm rang. I had just lapsed into deep sleep. Before the bell stopped ringing, I was on my feet, getting into my turnouts, but I had trouble clearing my head. Before I could get to the SCU console on the apparatus floor, the dispatcher broadcast the message. My mind was still fuzzy and I wasn't sure what I had heard. I picked up the microphone and asked for a repeat of the dispatch information.

"Fire at the Playboy Club, Sunset and Alta Loma. Numerous calls. Station Seven, Station Eight, Engine Thirty-eight, Engine Fifty-eight, LA City Engine Forty-one, and Battalion one responding." That got my attention. As I climbed aboard Engine 7, Engineer Danny Deaver punched the throttle on our "Toyopet Crown" and we started up the Hancock Street hill.

The "Toyopet" label was a term of derision for the 30 or so cut-rate pumpers that had been purchased by the County in the late 1950's. Division Chief Byron Robinson had cut a deal with the Crown Coach Corporation to build the pumpers for about 15 percent less than the standard 1,250 gallon-per-minute Firecoach. The lower priced vehicles would be rated at 1,000 gallons per minute, and they would be powered by a 580 cubic inch Waukesha six-cylinder engine, rather than the standard 935 cubic inch Hall-Scott.

About the time the first of these new pumpers were being delivered, the Japanese Toyota Motor Company was trying to introduce its cars to the American market. The top-of-the-line Toyota was labeled the "Toyopet Crown." It was an ugly car and not well made. In a highly publicized marketing campaign, the president of Toyota was to drive a Toyopet Crown sedan from the East Coast of America to the West Coast. The journey was never completed. The car broke down almost daily and each mechanical mishap was reported in the media.

LA County Fire Department personnel were accustomed to fire apparatus powered by the big Hall-Scoots. They had a deep, throaty sound, a fairly wide power range, and plenty of low-RPM torque for going up hills. The Waukesha-powered pampers, by contrast, had a tinny pitch to their exhaust sound, and they operated at higher RPMs, which made them sound like they were straining (which they were). When confronted by a hill, they would quickly slow to a crawl.

It wasn't long before some LA County firefighter put two-and-two together and matched the reports about the unreliable Toyopet Crown limping across the U.S. to the underpowered Crown fire engines that were being delivered to his fire department. The "Toyopet" label stuck to all of Chief Robinson's discount fire engines until all of them eventually were re-powered with diesel engines. Chief Robinson detested the label and would become almost apoplectic whenever he heard someone utter it.

Unfortunately, in 1970, Engine 7 was a Toyopet and, as it crawled up the Hancock Street hill, I could see a big glow in the sky in the direction of the Playboy Club. I picked up the microphone and instructed the dispatcher to notify all responding units that we had fire and smoke showing. At LA Headquarters, Ed Gussman broadcast the notification with the calm, cool manner of an experienced, professional dispatcher.

When we reached the top of Hancock Street and turned right on Holloway, the engine picked up speed and the glow in the sky got brighter. I pulled the pre-plan file from its place under the pumper's dashboard, but I never really needed it. We were very familiar with the building (which was non-sprinklered) and our water resources (which were almost limitless).

We turned from Holloway onto Alta Loma and started up another hill. The Toyopet again slowed to a crawl as Danny dropped back to a lower gear and the little Waukesha powerplant sounded as though it might jump from its motor mounts. A short distance after we started up the hill, the fire came into view.

The Playboy Club was a ten-story building that was perched on the side of a hill. The front of the building faced Sunset Boulevard and that level of the building was the second floor. The backside of the building, which we were approaching, was mostly glass -- to accommodate a view that stretched all the way to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the ocean.

The building essentially was a series of vertical concrete columns and horizontal lightweight concrete slabs, wrapped with aluminum frames that held 4' x 8' panes of tinted 1/4" glass in place. The Playboy Club occupied floors 1 through 3. Floors 4 through 9 were divided in the middle by a central hallway constructed of one-hour fire-rated wallboard and fireproof doors. These floors were rented to musician Vic Damone, Ross Bagdasarian (aka "David Seville," creator of "Alvin the Chipmunk"), and other tenants, most of whom were associated with the entertainment industry. The tenth floor was Hugh Hefner's penthouse (prior to his purchase of the Playboy Mansion).

As we approached the fire, we could see that floors 3 and 4 were fully involved, with flames from those floors reaching up the backside of the building toward the upper floors. I told Danny to take Engine 7 to the front door of the building on Sunset. That would be our command post. As we continued to crawl up the hill, just as we passed the backside of the building on our way to the front door, the entire expanse of fifth-floor windows on the back side fell from their frames and crashed to the roof of the parking structure 50 feet below. With that, the fire entered all of the offices on the backside of that floor.

I knew that this would be one of the biggest challenges of my career. I had long preached that command of a fire was an acting performance of sorts. The people on scene, those who monitored the radio transmissions during the emergency, and those who later listened to the radio tapes (during a post-incident critique) would become harsh judges of the incident commander's performance. Not so coincidentally, however, the best performances of incident command inevitably produced the best outcomes on the fireground.

The LA County Fire Department had never before experienced a major high-rise building fire. Normally, an event of that magnitude quickly would fall under the command of a chief officer. But West Hollywood was a geopolitical island, surrounded by the cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, each of which maintained their own fire departments. Our fire department had assigned the West Hollywood and Universal City islands to Battalion 1, which was headquartered at Station 38, a 30-minute drive from the Playboy Club - even with lights and siren.

Our Battalion Chief was "Whitey" Ardinger and I heard him on the air, acknowledging my initial on-scene report. Firefigher Clarence Treat squeegees water and debris from an upper floor of the Playboy Club building on the morning after the fire.I knew that he was a very competent fireground commander and I looked forward to his arrival on scene, but my competitive instincts were telling me to get the fire knocked down before the chief arrived - without hurting anyone.

We stopped the upward progression of the Playboy Fire at the 8th floor. The full report on the event could be book-length. There were some superb performances by a lot of people, and there was a lot of luck involved. Twenty-nine minutes after we received the alarm, I reported to LA Dispatch that the fire was knocked down (just as Chief Ardinger arrived at scene).

Less than a month later, I graduated from law school. A few days after that, I gave a report on the Playboy Fire at a meeting of all the department's chief officers. Afterwards, several chief officers told me I was a little too polished, that I had made some of the older chiefs a little uncomfortable.

The California Bar Exam

At the time, I was almost totally immersed in a bar review course; the bar exam was scheduled for August. Thus, I was relieved to learn that the fire department's Battalion Chief exam, also set for August, would not include a written test. It would consist only of an oral interview and the Appraisal of Promotability.

The bar exam was three days of sheer torment. Since I was a typist, I was assigned to join 300 or so other examinees with typewriters at the Glendale Civic Auditorium. The sound of that many typewriters, all furiously hammering out answers to the essay-type questions, was distracting at first. After awhile, however, the background noise became barely noticeable as every one of my available brain cells was focused on the exam. At the end of the third day, when it was finally over, I was physically and emotionally depleted. In the parking lot, I got into my Ford station wagon and immediately drove over a curb.

In the weeks after the bar exam, for the first time in thirteen years, I was able to give all my attention to my family and my fire department job. It was difficult to adjust, and my nervous energy continued unabated. For a lot of reasons, my wife and I had lost the ability to communicate well with each other. We both needed some time to wind down and get reacquainted but I had used up all my vacation time and holidays to finish school and study for the bar exam.

The boys were 13, 9 and 6, they were typically rowdy and rambunctious, and involved in competitive age-group swimming, so there was no real quiet time at home. Instead of working on my relationship with my wife and family, I retreated to my office at home and finished writing my fire company supervision textbook.

The bar exam results came in November, as I recall. I was home when they arrived in the mail. My hands shook as I opened the envelope. "We regret to inform you......," the letter said. I was devastated. Within an hour or two after getting the bad news, I was analyzing why I had failed. It was no mystery, really. A law professor once told me, "the law is a jealous mistress." I had cheated on that jealous mistress.

The Playboy Fire and its aftermath, my preoccupation with the Battalion Chief exam process, and trying to write a book while studying for the bar were, in essence, arrogant disregard for solid advice. I had believed I was different. I'd been skating through exams my whole adult life, and I thought I'd skate through the bar exam. I had nobody to blame but myself. Within 24 hours, I was plotting a study program that would prepare me for the next exam, to be held in March 1971.

Copyright 1998, James O. Page