For our first day with women who trained with law enforcement, please welcome Amy Atwell. Amy is a writer and a motivator. She is a Golden Heart finalist, which will mean more to romance writers than to most folks.

Amy was generous enough to share some of her experiences training with law enforcement. Please make her welcome.

I graduated from my local Civilian Law Enforcement Academy (CLEA) back in 2005. I had recently relocated from California to Florida's First Coast, and I learned about the free CLEA class in my local newspaper. At that time, CLEA was a brand new program offered the St Johns County Sheriff's Office, and the sheriff and his staff did their best to provide the students with every law enforcement experience you can imagine.

As a writer, the class provided great insights to the wide variety of duties covered by law enforcement. I could spend a few weeks here describing things we studied: SWAT operations, bomb squad, K-9, firearms, driving course, county corrections, negotiations and more. Instead, I'm going to discuss two sessions that really opened my eyes.

911 Call Center

My elderly father suffers life-endangering sugar crashes from his diabetes, so I've made a few 911 calls in my day. I know how eagerly someone waits for help to arrive. So, I was filled with questions when six members of our CLEA class visited the 911 Call Center.

The staff of four employees rotated taking and routing calls. Fire and medical emergency calls are routed to the Fire Department's operators. Operators try to quickly identify the needs of the caller and route the nearest help as quickly as possible. Bear in mind, these staffers work 8-12 hour shifts, and the starting annual salary (in my area) is $26K. Operators rarely work longer than 5 years in these high stress roles. One operator we talked to that night had been at her job for 8 years. Think of it: eight years of taking stressful calls, of helping save some lives, and sitting by helplessly unable to help others.

The night we were there, one of the operators took a call from a child who couldn't wake her mom. They dispatched the EMTs immediately. The operator stayed on the line with the little girl, reassuring her that help was coming. We were all hoping for good news, but when the medics arrived, one of them got on the phone to tell 911 that the mother wasn't breathing and had no pulse. They were going to transport the mother to the hospital, but as there was very little hope of reviving her, they didn't want to transport the young girl.

Our 911 operator took over talking with the child while the EMTs prepped to leave with her mother. Meanwhile, the 911 center dispatched a deputy to stay with the child and issued a call to Child Welfare Services. But our 911 operator stayed on the phone with the child even through the deputy arriving, the EMTs leaving, and all the while remained calm and positive. Only we could see the tears streaming down her face.

Talk about unsung heroes. I think a heroine who is a 911 operator would be amazing.


Ride Along

I got to ride along with one of our deputies for three hours one night. First revelation—the amount of technology these men and women have in their vehicles is awe-inspiring. The trunk has all-weather gear, road hazard warning devices (cones & flares), and the equivalent of a filing cabinet with various paperwork and forms for every contingency. The cab of the vehicle is outfitted with GPS mapping technology and radio communications, and a laptop computer fits into a holder by the dashboard. Deputies use this to receive updates and APBs. They can also use the computer to run license tags. This way, if they pull over a vehicle, they can establish if there's a flag in their system about that car. Since deputies rarely travel in teams, this helps the lone officer be better prepared for possible danger.

My evening with the deputy started off slow. I learned about their favorite restaurants, also found out the county has secret gas stations tucked away so all emergency vehicles can stop in and refuel without waiting in line or having to pay. And they do a lot of driving. Our county covers over 2000 square miles.

One radio call changed our evening. The state park staff had locked up its beach parking lot, but there was still a car in the lot. They reported to the sheriff's office, and when they ran the tag and contacted the car owner, the owner reported that a family member who suffered from mental instability had taken the car. This woman had taken the car and left some sort of note about wanting to kill herself.

Before I knew it, we were speeding through the pitch dark along the beach road at over 90 mph (speed limit normally 30). Reaching the state park, we parked by the road. The deputy asked me to stay with the squad car while he walked into the parking lot to check on the vehicle there. Finding it empty, he took his high-powered flashlight and headed down to the water.

To my relief, he returned less than ten minutes later, and he was ushering a woman in her forties who looked a little disheveled but not like she was in imminent danger. He escorted her to the squad car and put her in the back. I took a seat up front, and I was happy for the screen that separated the two halves of the vehicle. She asked me why I'd been arrested and then started to yell at the deputy. He stood outside radioing the hospital to expect us.

We drove her to the emergency room where she was greeted by the staff as an old friend. One nurse confided that they see this woman pretty much whenever she goes off her meds. Fortunately, we were able to sign over responsibility for her to the hospital staff, who said they'd release her to her family when it was appropriate. The deputy was relieved once these papers were signed, and when we got back out to the car, he admitted that if the hospital had refused to admit her, he would have had to take her to the county jail instead. Not what anyone would have wished for.

After that, there wasn't time to patrol neighborhoods. I did get a few tidbits from the deputy while he drove me back to my car. Things like his job really does get crazier during the full moon. Oh, and one of the busiest days of the year for law enforcement? The Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. He claims it's because families are sick of spending so much time together over the holiday weekend. Lots of domestic calls.

I highly recommend that writers check with their local law enforcement offices to see if a CLEA program is available in your area. Our alumni group still gets together occasionally, and we also act as volunteers. My experience gave me hundreds of tidbits to include in my stories, and I had a blast taking the class and learning so many things first-hand.

Thanks to the Pink Fuzzies for inviting me to participate in this blog week. Great topic, and I salute all of our law enforcement men and women.

Ask her questions!

30 comments

  1. ArkansasCyndi // April 12, 2010 at 12:12 AM  

    I would love to do this. I live in the county but the sheriff's department doesn't have a citizen's program. The City Police DOES have a program but I'm not allow to apply since I live in the country. I applied once for the FBI citizen's academy. Didn't get picked. Didn't care enough to pull all my chits to get in. :)

    Sounds like you had a great experience, Amy. There's nothing like frontline experience to make memories.

    Thanks for sharing them here.

  2. Mary Marvella // April 12, 2010 at 12:19 AM  

    Hey, Amy! Your stories really hit home with me.

  3. Mary Marvella // April 12, 2010 at 1:59 AM  

    Hey, Cyndi!

  4. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 8:02 AM  

    Thanks for welcoming me, Mary! It's a pleasure to be here. My CLEA experience was amazing, and I do believe every writer can learn from such an experience. Can't wait to here what the other writers have to say later this week.

  5. Edie Ramer // April 12, 2010 at 8:28 AM  

    Amy, this was great! I feel for the operator in the Call Center. And the ride along sounds fascinating.

  6. Angi Morgan // April 12, 2010 at 10:03 AM  

    Awesome blog, Amy. Thanks for sharing the story about the 911 operator. You're right, that woman would make a great heroine. I'm certain you have dibs on her, yes? I can see an Intrigue in your future.

    ~~Angi

  7. Pamela Varnado // April 12, 2010 at 10:04 AM  

    This sounds so awesome, though I was sorry to read about the young girl's mother. I'm going to check with my local police agency to see if they have a program in my town.

  8. Donnell // April 12, 2010 at 10:17 AM  

    Well, heck! I posted a question and came back for an answer, and don't see it here. Try, try again. Great post, Amy. I'm curious if before the CA you had any preconceived notions, and after attending, did the program change these ideas or reinforce them. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Gwen Hernandez // April 12, 2010 at 10:22 AM  

    What a great post, Amy. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I was hoping to go to Writer's Police Academy this year, but since it isn't in the budget, I'm planning to apply to my county's Citizen's Police Academy after I move back to Virginia this summer.

    Cyndi: I didn't know the FBI had a program too. How cool! I wonder about the DEA...

  10. Judy // April 12, 2010 at 10:25 AM  

    Hi, Amy! Thanks for visiting the Fuzzies. It sounds like a fascinating experience. It's always great to get a look behind the scenes of something like this. Were you ever with someone when they had to pull a gun? Had the deputies ever fired a gun at someone? Killed them? Thanks. Judy

  11. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 10:31 AM  

    Thanks, Edie, Angi & Pamela. The 911 visit was gut-wrenching. It looked so sterile and removed, until you understood that the phone calls they receive are charged with emotion. BIG emotion. Life-altering emotion. Yet, they're bringing in their bagged lunch, taking 10-minute breaks, filing paperwork, just like any office. Then when a call comes in, they're talking, they're typing (often, the first notification to deputies comes out as a message on their in-vehicle computers), and they're monitoring the response to the call. They're amazing.

  12. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 10:36 AM  

    Answer for Donnell's question:

    Did I have preconceived notions, and did my experience change those perceptions?

    To be honest, I took the class because I was woefully ignorant of the inner workings of law enforcement. I mean, other than being pulled over for speeding years ago, I just haven't had many encounters with the police. In some ways my perceptions have been driven by television--I grew up watching Starsky & Hutch. So, you can imagine my surprise when the first class we had was all about budgeting and how the Sheriff's Office used its funds. Life & death meets bureaucracy, you know?

  13. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 10:41 AM  

    Answer to Judy's question:

    Was I ever with someone when they pulled their gun or did I meet an officer who'd killed someone?

    Not nearly that dramatic. We did have a firearms class where they took us out to the shooting range one evening. Because it was dark, they set up an "obstacle course" for us inside. Lots of corner, blind alleys. We walked through with our guns. We didn't shoot at anything within the maze, but just holding the gun in position (pointing upward--you don't want to kill your partner!) and moving around blind corners--well, the adrenaline rush was pretty amazing. Believe me, if you encounter an officer who's pulled his or her weapon, there's a lot of adrenaline driving them at that point.

    We did get to shoot at targets, too. I did surprisingly well for someone who'd never fired a real gun before. Apparently, the SJCSO also teaches firearms classes--I think once per month. That's another potential resource for writers. In our county, you don't even have to have your own gun. They'll teach you the classes and certify you in safety so you can decide whether you want to get a gun permit and buy a weapon.

  14. Wendy Marcus // April 12, 2010 at 11:00 AM  

    Thank your for this informative post, Amy. I can say from experience as a nurse in an emergency room, that the police officer you rode with is correct. The full moon does bring out the crazies!

  15. Mary Marvella // April 12, 2010 at 11:27 AM  

    Amy, do you have a website or blog?

  16. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 11:28 AM  

    I do, Mary:

    http://www.amyatwell.com is my website. Sorry, it was down this morning, but tech support has me back up and running.

  17. Sandy // April 12, 2010 at 12:58 PM  

    I'm always learning something new about you, Amy. Smile.

    I agree that a 911 operator would make a great heroine. It gives me ideas. Wink!

    Great interview, Amy.

    My little town has a ride-along program, but I'm not sure about the other. I'll check into it.

  18. Cindy // April 12, 2010 at 2:04 PM  

    Great blog, Amy. I missed our 911 call centre night. But I was happy to learn at graduation that we can make up any classes we missed. We just have to let them know what classes when the next session starts. That call would have had me in tears too. Hmm. Maybe I won’t try to make up that class.

  19. Barbara Monajem // April 12, 2010 at 3:34 PM  

    Hi, Amy! I remember you from the Daphne contest.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Very moving and enlightening!

  20. Mary Ricksen // April 12, 2010 at 6:05 PM  

    I had not idea. We have a citizen's patrol. Hmmmm.
    What I would love to do is ride along!
    The call center could be heartbreaking.

  21. Joanne // April 12, 2010 at 6:52 PM  

    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for blogging at the Pink Fuzzies today. I've never met you, but enjoy your informative posts on the PRO boards. I've meant to research the Citizens Police Academy in my area. Your blog has motivated me to find out more.

  22. Mary Marvella // April 12, 2010 at 7:23 PM  

    Amy, you're doing a wonderful job! Ladies, pump her brain.

  23. Autumn Jordon // April 12, 2010 at 8:17 PM  

    Amy, So sorry to be real late. What an awesome opportunity. I could feel you excitement and heart reading your posts. And I can only imagine what was going through your mind while sitting in the car while the officer disappeared into the woods.

    I'm definitely going to check if my county has a program like this. Thanks for stopping by the Fuzzies and sharing.

  24. Amy Atwell // April 12, 2010 at 8:20 PM  

    Hi all--
    Thanks for the lovely posts, and I'm so pleased that I've got people thinking.

    Cindy, it's great your CLEA class would let you make up sessions. We were told we could come back and monitor the 911 center anytime, as long as we called ahead and identified ourselves as graduates. It opens up the whole system to you as a writer. I wouldn't hesitate to call my Sheriff's office and pump them with questions now!

    Sorry I had to go away for awhile this afternoon. I'll be here off and on all week chatting with the other bloggers, so if you have specific questions for me, just put my name in it. Thanks again to the Fuzzies for having me!!

  25. Donna Marie Rogers // April 12, 2010 at 11:20 PM  

    Wow, Amy, what a powerful post. I can't even imagine the stress of such a job as a 911 operator, and how heartwrenching thinking of that little girl and the operator who kept her talking while tears streamed down her face. I hope the mother somehow made it.

  26. magolla // April 13, 2010 at 10:14 AM  

    How horrible for the operator and little girl, Amy! I got teary-eyed just reading about it!

  27. Anonymous // April 13, 2010 at 1:36 PM  

    Amy, thanks for blogging with the pink fuzzies. What an exciting experience. Have you included the things you learned in your work? Great blog, sorry to be late checking in.

    Melba Moon
    President-Elect KOD

  28. Mary Marvella // April 13, 2010 at 1:50 PM  

    Amy is so fabulous!

  29. StephB // April 14, 2010 at 11:14 AM  

    Amy, I work for LAPD as a 911 dispatcher. Everyone of us feels as if we're "unsung" heroes. For example, a couple of hikers got lost near the Hollywood sign. My coworker stayed on the line with them for over an hour while the air unit located them and got help to them. That was definately going the extra mile.

    Smiles
    Steph

  30. Mary Marvella // April 15, 2010 at 1:04 PM  

    Amy, thanks for doing a fabulous job!
    Thank you, visitors who stopped and commented!

    Mama Mary