- Published on Tuesday, 07 September 2010 17:00
- Written by Elliott Burr - Town Crier Staff Writer
At times, many of us take police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters for granted. But those who have been helped by them – whether they’re performing CPR in a medical emergency or breaking up a potentially violent confrontation – know they can mean the difference between life and death.
With its lack of high-profile crimes, Los Altos often offers residents a false sense of security. But the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 – the nine-year anniversary upon us Saturday – taught us to take nothing for granted. 9/11 remains a reminder of how vital our protectors, and the services they provide, truly are.
The Town Crier recently interviewed deputies, firefighters and police officers to better understand the jobs they perform and how they serve us. We value their insights and offer their reflections on one of the most infamous days in American history.
Los Altos’ Santa Clara County Fire Department firefighters
Amber Peterson and Suwanna Kerdkaew were about to become firefighters just before two airplanes hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan nine years ago. Both had yet to respond to a call at that point, much less enter a burning building.
Rather than let the intimidating news drive them from a career that would involve certain danger, both jumped in headfirst.
“I was in the process (of taking written exams to qualify for becoming a firefighter), and they asked us in class, ‘Would you still go into a building if you knew it was going to come down?’” Peterson recalled. “It made us think, but I would absolutely want to.”
Kerdkaew, a former Genentech employee, said her desire to become a firefighter was reinforced after she noticed a flight attendant in uniform on BART a few days after Sept. 11.
“Everything I saw around me – the flight attendant, the outpouring of support – solidified my resolve to become a firefighter,” she said.
Both firefighters now work at the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s Los Altos station on Almond Avenue.
A variety of protections
There aren’t any buildings in Los Altos that, if targeted by terrorists, would have the same impact as two 100-plus-story skyscrapers crumbling. But it doesn’t take that kind of catastrophe to pinpoint a firefighter’s worth, according to Kerdkaew.
“It could be a one-story, two-bedroom home,” she said. “In that moment, we’re trained to do what we’re supposed to do.”
A majority of calls the Los Altos Almond station receives are medical, so it’s no wonder that American Medical Response teammates James Sauter and Samantha Tennison – based in Los Altos and also serving other Santa Clara County cities – constantly have their hands full. After two years and seven years on the job, respectively, they said it’s the difference-making incidents that motivate them amid loads of stress.
“They can be rare,” Sauter said. “When you do get it … and you know you’ve helped, it’s a great feeling.”
Peterson said she was driving to the gym the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I kept hearing talking on the radio, so I kept changing it,” she said. “When I got to the gym, there was no one on a single piece of equipment. They were all dead-quiet, looking at the TV.”
Capt. Tony Balsa of the Los Altos station was working as a paramedic in Campbell nine years ago.
“We went to the printer (that receives departmentwide announcements), and it (read), ‘Turn on your TV.’ We all thought ‘Wow, great. We get to watch TV,’” Balsa said. “But it was just unbelievable.”
He said everyone was ordered to remain on high alert and look for anything suspicious – on a day where anything could be suspicious.
In the post-9/11 era, Balsa said firefighters are even more cautious than before in ambiguous situations and have formed new special-ops teams trained in disaster relief.
Risk and reward
Any firefighter or emergency medical personnel could probably write volumes on the daily risks they encounter. Tennison, the AMR employee, recalled an especially harrowing experience.
Several years ago, early in her career, she was called to work a concert at HP Pavilion in San Jose. A local gang leader had just been released from prison and was in attendance.
“There were around 20 assaults at that concert,” Tennison said. “And I ended up with that gang leader as my patient. … He had been thrown down a flight of stairs, so he had his bell rung pretty good.”
She became stuck amid the riotous throng trying to break into her ambulance.
“Sometimes people don’t want you to help who you’re trying to help,” she said.
Tennison sat with the lights off inside the ambulance with the gang leader as they awaited a police escort.
She eventually made it safely to the hospital but acknowledged the inherent danger in saving people. Luckily, she said, the near-deaths, deaths and violence she works with are balanced out.
“It’s not just lights, sirens, blood and guts,” she said. “We also get to see babies born.”
Lack of closure
Kerdkaew said she and her crew rarely get to learn the outcomes of patients they assist. Peterson said it can sometimes be discomforting when there’s no closure.
The two firefighters were on the scene last July when an 84-year-old Los Altos Hills resident crashed her car into the historical Shoup Building on Main Street. After rendering assistance, they were surveying the scene when a young man approached to thank them for saving his father weeks before.
“He said he recognized us from the call,” Kerdkaew said. “Sometimes you don’t think (the patient) made it, and when you find out they did – I had tears welling.”
Los Altos Police Detective Sgt. Scott McCrossin
The unknown has been a close companion to Los Altos Police Detective Sgt. Scott McCrossin throughout his career.
While on patrol, routine traffic stops can morph into felony drug arrests. An alleged newspaper deliveryman driving around at 2 a.m. could turn out to be a burglar preparing to ransack a home.
Such capriciousness could drive anyone nuts.
But there’s at least one constant in McCrossin’s 13-year career with the force that motivates him to stick it out for the long haul – helping people.
“That’s a common denominator when I talk with my peers and others in law enforcement,” McCrossin said. “Helping people definitely stands out … and the memories I have of people I’ve helped.”
McCrossin, formerly a Costco manager, recalled a night he was patrolling in the wee hours in Los Altos and noticed headlights.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100 it’s going to be a paperboy or something, but I went and checked it out,” he said.
As it turned out, the vehicle’s occupants were burglars about to rob a nearby home with a lone woman inside.
“Who knows what could’ve happened? … We’ll never know how many crimes we prevent by just being in the area – flying the colors, so to speak,” McCrossin said.
And it’s not just victims he and the department try to help.
“I also look to help those who I put handcuffs on. … We try to see the best in a person,” he said. “Sometimes help is repeatedly putting them in jail, but when we see them turn their lives around, it really means something.”
McCrossin, 40, started as a dispatcher with the Los Altos Police Department 13 years ago, then went through a six-month training program to become an officer, spending two months on in-field training. He then made his way through the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team training, became an agent, a detective and ultimately a sergeant.
He said he’s been drawn to law enforcement since he was young, compelled by a sense of responsibility to “help those who can’t help themselves.”
“It’s almost like a warrior mentality,” he said. “A ‘save the world’ kind of thing.”
McCrossin just transferred from patrol duties to a three-year shift as detective sergeant.
A different kind of peril
McCrossin admits that some risks in being a Los Altos police officer don’t hold the same weight as they would in the Oakland or Los Angeles police department. But suiting up in blue for the 94022 and 94024 zip codes carries a different set of challenges.
Because an officer in Los Altos can work an entire 12-hour shift and respond to only two calls requesting assistance with a barking dog, idle time is a danger.
“I’ve had shifts where I’ve had nothing going on, then suddenly I have a car stop and I’m pulling a gun out from under the car’s front seat. That gun could have been pulled out and pointed at me,” McCrossin said. “It’s a challenge to be on high alert at all times. … You gotta be ready for it.”
He said another risk, with which nearly all police officers cope, is the off-kilter sleep schedule. Some officers assigned to the night shift work a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. schedule.
“It’s just part of the job,” he said.
Reflections on Sept. 11
McCrossin said if a suspect or resident becomes upset with him in Los Altos, he doesn’t let it get under his skin, but when the two airplanes struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan nine years ago, he experienced a “flood of emotion.”
“When someone attacks my country, I take that personally,” he said.
He said 9/11 was a strange day – the police department required all units to report to the station in the event they would be called to assist in New York. That didn’t happen, but to McCrossin, it served as a reminder to remain always on high alert.
Even some Los Altos residents, he said, reported receiving packages from New York that they weren’t expecting.
He said he clipped and saved newspaper articles to show to his children and perhaps relay accounts of the day history books cannot.
‘Thank you for saying
Although being a police officer isn’t completely thankless, McCrossin said, days are few and far between when someone expresses gratitude to him for what he does.
But it does happen. And it’s part of what makes his job worthwhile.
“I was eating a bagel (downtown) and someone came up to me and says, ‘Thank you for what you do.’ It kind of caught me off-guard. I said, ‘Thank you for saying thank you.’”
Good thing he’s prepared for the unexpected.
Patrolling the Hills
While Los Altos Hills’ raw statistics – little more than 8,000 residents, no business districts, high median income – might suggest humdrum policing, that’s not necessarily so, according to Santa Clara County Deputy Raymond Giusti, who contracts with the town.
He said most incidents are either traffic-related or property crimes.
“I’ve become adjusted to this city. A lot of people don’t like working up here because the call volume is small,” said Giusti, the only officer patrolling the town. “But as anyone who gets passionate for a job, there’s the element that they just love to do it.”