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Nick Odenath, VCLA Cohort XXVI
President, Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Association
I found this VCLA session of particular interest. The focus of this session was on public safety in Ventura County. You might be asking yourself why is this a session Nick was looking forward too since he has spent the last 19 years in public safety. Although, it is true, I have spent most of my adult life as a deputy sheriff in Ventura County and have a good sense of the work that is being done. However, what I have learned about VCLA is these sessions are not simply designed to
educate cohort members on the general topic of the day, but rather challenge you to think about the many facets of the respective topic and how it impacts the community in which we live and serve in one respect or another. In addition, VCLA affords cohort members the opportunity to engage with members of this community that you otherwise may not engage. VCLA certainly did not disappoint.
The day started with the ability to choose from several of our public safety leaders in the Ventura County. Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen, Thousand Oaks Police Chief James Fryhoff, California State University Channel Islands Lieutenant Drake Massey, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites and Ventura Police Chief Darin Schindler were all options for the cohort members. I opted to hear from CSUCI Lieutenant Massey during the morning session and VCFD Chief Lorenzen during the mid-morning session.
Given the COVID-19 restrictions, we met virtually with Lieutenant Massey. I was interested to hear about the issues specific to campus public safety. Lieutenant Massey explained that the campus, during normal operations, can experience an increase in population of 7,000 people on any given day. This creates logistic challenges such as parking and response times to emergencies. Given the geographic location of the campus, there is a constant concern for potential wildfires and the campus has experienced wildfires in the recent past. Lieutenant Massey talked about the work being done to improve their evacuation plan and how they are using new technology to decrease the time it takes to notify staff and students of an emergency and coordinate evacuation planning. What I found to be of most interest was CSUCI and all California State Universities’ adoption of community relations protocol. Lieutenant Massey said the California State University system has committed to the six pillars of the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide (https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-announces-new-guidebook-21st-century-policing). These six pillars focus on areas that are very much in discussion throughout the United States and speak to building trust between peace officers and the communities they serve. Although this commitment is a first step, it is a step in the right direction and speaks to the essence of our role as public servants.
We were fortunate to meet VCFD Chief Lorenzen for an outdoor in-person meeting (with masks and socially distanced, of course) at their Camarillo-based training center. Chief Lorenzen talked about the challenges for VCFD and how they are addressing them. Unlike peace officer agencies, VCFD has no shortage of applicants. However, they are working on targeting a more diverse population in their recruitment efforts. Chief Lorenzen said they are actively seeking out female applicants as well as applicants of different ethnic backgrounds. Chief Lorenzen wants a fire agency that better reflects and relates the communities they serve. He, along with their leadership team are actively recruiting at colleges, universities and CrossFit gyms in the region. As a result, they are starting to see an increase in diversity among applicants. Chief Lorenzen addressed the issue of wellness among those employed with VCFD. He said that nationwide, an alarming trend has developed. There are more firefighters committing suicide than dying in the line of duty. Chief Lorenzen and his staff have worked to develop a wellness plan to address this trend within the agency, including having resources such as a peer support team, training specifically regarding first responder wellness and education regarding the signs of post-traumatic stress injury.
After our lunch break, we reconvened as a cohort virtually. Each member of the cohort was able to offer some of their takeaways from their respective morning public safety sessions with our public safety leaders. I find these opportunities to share our takeaways important. Another special part about VCLA is the diverse backgrounds we bring to the discussion. I find it refreshing to hear from each of my fellow cohort members on their perspective and takeaways. It allows me to see issues from a different lens. To be clear, we do have a special cohort, I mean we are “Virtually the Best” if not the best cohort (yes, I am bias)!
During the afternoon session, we had an opportunity to hear from our public safety members that are often forgotten, our dispatchers. Specifically, we heard from Kelly Brown, Director of 2-1-1 Ventura County, Interface Children and Family Services, Dr. Jim Norris, IT Director, Ventura County Fire Department and Mallory Crosby, Dispatch Supervisor, Ventura County Fire Department. Kelly shared how COVID-19 and the restrictions have really changed the landscape for 2-1-1. Kelly said those calling the center are often in need of housing resources. Given increased unemployment and the related issues, the call center has seen an increase in calls. Kelly shared how she and her supervisors have monitored the well-being of their call takers to ensure they are taking care of themselves and also able to properly address the concerns of those calling for assistance. Currently, the 2-1-1 handles service calls for 40 of the 58 counties in California, making it the largest such call center in California.
Dr. Jim Norris and Mallory Crosby shared their experiences managing the VCFD call center. Dr. Norris shared some exciting work about improvements to the call center system that will allow information to be pushed to firefighters faster and more efficiently, as well as address mutual aid concerns and communication. Mallory shared the experience of the dispatchers she supervises and how the calls they receive can be both stressful and rewarding. Mallory said the dispatchers are often providing instructions on how to perform lifesaving CPR to family members calling during a medical emergency. She also said many of her dispatchers have had the opportunity to coach soon-to-parents through pregnancy delivery. Mallory described the bond of the dispatchers who work together as a team to help community members who are often calling during the worst moment in their life.
We ended the day having “Coffee with a Black Guy” (https://www.cwabg.com/). This was the part of the session I was most interested in listening too. Community Leader James Joyce III started “Coffee with a Black Guy” a few years ago with the goal of creating a forum in which black men and women share their experiences for better community understanding. James shared historical perspective on policing in America and talked about some of the racial ideology in which American policing was based and how those ideologies still plague communities of color today. James has a unique gift of raising questions that promote discussion. What does defund the police mean? Why aren’t the police more transparent.
Christina Tokatlian, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Forensic Scientist and Local CODIS Administrator
Ventura County Sheriff's Office
November 8, 2018 is a day I will never forget. I remember waking up that morning to go to work and the first piece of news I heard about was the horrific Borderline shooting that took place the night before and the tragic loss of twelve innocent souls, one of whom was one of our own in the VCSO family. The weight I felt in my heart was so incredibly heavy.
I was in shock that such a tragedy could occur so close to home. The grief could be felt throughout the entire department for our fallen hero and victims. Then, as if this tragedy wasn’t enough, a fire started that afternoon and spread quickly burning our county. I left work a couple of hours early to be able to get home to my family but the 101 freeway had already been blocked. It took me four hours to get from Ventura to Thousand Oaks using Santa Rosa Road. I distinctly remember as I was sitting in my car inching slowly forward in the traffic, I was watching those bright hellish flames burn against the dark evening sky, engulfing miles of hillside and all I could think to myself was: God bless the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and the Ventura County Fire Department. This overwhelming appreciation and tremendous pride was exactly what I felt in today’s VCLA session on public safety.
Given the hurdles presented by this unprecedented global pandemic, it has been so inspirational to see our community leaders working together to provide us with options to continue our education. The morning started with a variety of different options of speakers including Sheriff Bill Ayub, Thousand Oaks Police Chief James Fryhoff, Fire Chief Mike Lorenzen, Ventura Police Department Police Chief Darin Schindler, Lieutenant Drake Massey from CSUCI Campus Police or Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites from Oxnard Police Department. Each student was asked to pick two sessions and then the entire group would meet via Zoom in the afternoon to discuss the takeaways of the day. My day consisted of a Zoom session with Police Chief Fryhoff and an in-person session with Fire Chief Lorenzen.
The dominating theme from these discussions was positive and effective relationships. In speaking with Chief Fryhoff, the major issues facing the Conejo Valley (and even a lot of the other cities in our county) were vehicle thefts, residential burglaries, organized retail crime, and homelessness. Other citizen concerns also include providing threat assessment and active shooter training tools. Chief Fryhoff described a few of the amazing programs that he and his colleagues engage in such as working with the school district to put together a council including the school principal, a counselor, and a law enforcement officer. They help put together programs to allow children to step out of their comfort zone and understand one another in hopes of preventing bullying or other negative behavior. This also helps enlighten everyone to keep their eyes open for any signs of a possible shooting incident. Another wonderful program is Safe Passage. This program works with California Lutheran University and the Conejo Recreation and Park District to provide tutoring centers where children can go to for tutoring help or any other needs they may have. This ultimately helps guide them in a positive direction and has helped to bring the numbers of gang communities down. The greatest challenge today is finding virtual means of communication due to the pandemic and it is precisely these relationships that VCSO has built with its community and other communities that allow for such wonderful programs to be created and made available.
In speaking with Fire Chief Lorenzen, it was amazing to hear about the solid relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the Fire Department in our county. Not all counties are fortunate to have this type of relationship, and it is this which has helped us through many disasters. The Fire Academy and Sheriff’s Academy share training grounds in Camarillo and they lean on each other and work in unison. Not only does the Fire Department have a solid relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, it also has a solid relationship with other county and state fire departments as well. This allows for mutual aid in times of need. The Thomas Fire was a great example of our public safety heroes coming together to help out our community. This included long hours of work and resources such as helicopters, police officers, firefighters, the Office of Emergency Services, as well as fire engines and help from neighboring counties. It is exactly this type of dedication that makes me feel safe to live in Ventura County.
The day concluded with a Zoom session with Kelly Brown (Director of 2-1-1 Ventura County), Dr. Jim Norris (IT Director for the Ventura County Fire Department), Mallory Crosby (Dispatch Supervisor for the Ventura County Fire Department), and James Joyce III (Coffee with a Black Guy). These conversations continued to drive in the point that we all have and need to establish relationships with one another to help each other in times of need. Communication and unity are the strongest tools we have to move forward together towards a successful future. I am so proud of the leadership in our county and feel honored to be able to contribute my part to its continuous improvement.