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Gloria Ann Thomas Brown: Resident since 1953

Editor’s note: This is the continuation of a partial excerpt from Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California Volume 2, written by Lawrence F. Lihosit, a local historian. It is available at Maildrop and G.B.S. on Howard and on Books.

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Born seventh of eleven on July 21, 1951 in Los Angeles, Gloria Ann Thomas Brown and her family moved to Madera where her grandparents lived in 1953. She attended the old Pershing Elementary School, Millview Elementary School, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Madera High School (North Campus). She began work early and eventually entered public service in the law enforcement sector: administrative clerk, dispatcher and correctional officer. Now retired after a career that spanned more than three decades, Ms. Brown has been the president of the local NAACP since 2011 and recently led a peaceful march to protest police brutality in other cities. She raised five children in Madera.

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“It would be an upgrade on this job and you’ll make more,” they said.

I was a single parent trying to do the best for my kids. They brought me an application, I filled it out and they took it in for me. I passed the interview and started working. The job is called a communications operator. First and foremost is officer’s safety. We continually monitored radio traffic, listening to the officer’s tone of voice and what they needed in the field whether it was help, trucks, ambulance. Whatever they needed our job was to get it to them as fast as possible. If they asked for directions to an accident, we had to get them the fastest route. They said the fastest way was always a straight line. We also had to check jurisdictions: local or county. Some of the areas inside the city were still considered county and we had to check maps. You had to know which officer worked which area, the beats. They had a wall map that they always kept updated.

We used to a card system that you had to write everything down, every word. You had to write and stamp, write and stamp. You had stacks of cards everywhere. They went with the recordings so they could listen and read the cards at the same time. It was written in a CHP shorthand like code so that it was easier to write, fast.

My biggest problem was compass directions: east, west, north and south. For instance, is it north of the intersection or south of it? When an officer is responding to a call, he needs to know how he is going to get on the freeway. If the accident is north of the overpass, there is an exit he could use but if it’s south of the overpass he’s got to come up from the last exit behind him. You have to tell the officer exactly where the accident is so he knows how to get there. He can’t cause an accident to get to an accident. They go by what you are telling them.

With tule fog it’s really bad. There might be a mass accident and the officer can’t see anything. He can only hear when people are calling and screaming. You might tell him to make a break. Whoever was responding to a mass accident had to make a break in traffic- slow them down to keep them from running into the other cars. To make a break is to straddle the highway with their cars, red overhead lights on. The officer is slowing down traffic before they reach those stopped cars ahead. CALTRANS (California Department of Transportation) might not have gotten out there with their signs yet. People are still going at their normal traffic flow and they can’t see. In these cases, the dispatcher has to call all the tow trucks and ambulances and tell them to go to a staging point and just stay there. We call them in as we need them.

Once they got there, we asked them for the vehicle’s VIN number (vehicle identification number, noted on registration) and the color of the car. If people are hurt or there are deaths, you need to know where the cars are going. There is a Multi-Accident Investigative Team out there because there might be possible lawsuits involved. They’re going to be out there for hours, taking pictures, even using helicopters once the fog lifts. We had to have all of this in place for them.

911 started with the highway patrol. In the beginning, we received the call and often transferred it to the city. We had to be trained for that: people calling for help from all over with all sorts of problems. It seemed like you didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom. Since break-time and lunch hour was state mandated and the job often didn’t permit this, we were paid from the time we left our house until we got home. We were essential workers and they could always call us back if needed. It was very stressful.

Later, some of the mapping was computerized with a program called CAD (computer-aided design). They trained us in Fresno and we adapted. We got it and they were amazed we learned so fast. It was simpler. Well, I became a statewide CAD trainer, traveling to the southern part of the state to places like Barstow to train people.

You need to stay focused. You need to concentrate on these officers. You can’t think about outside issues, like things from home. For example, if someone called me at work while I was working the radio, I had to get off the radio to speak with them. I couldn’t put anyone in jeopardy. This started causing me some stress. My chest hurt. It felt like acid built-up. It inflamed my sternum. I thought I was having a heart attack and went to the hospital.

The doctor told me that it wasn’t a heart attack but costochondritis. “You need to settle down and get some medication.” He gave me two injections directly into my sternum just to calm down. He explained that he had seen people who had to have their sternums removed and then were in pain the rest of their lives. I went back to work but I still had it. If I get real upset, it gets aggravated. I started at CCWF (Central California Women’s Facility-Women’s Prison in Chowchilla) when they first opened it. I saw the first busload of women arrive. I transferred out looking for a job where I could be a supervisor in the valley. I ran the canteen. We received merchandise coming in the warehouse. You had to walk a lot. It’s big. We did inventories and audits. It was much less stressful. At the state prison, most of the inmates have accepted that they are there to do their time. They just want to get out so they don’t cause problems.

My brother was always reading stuff and sometime between 2007 and 2011 he asked me, “Have you heard about this? There’s a KKK rally planned in Madera County.” We looked into it. It was called Unity Fest and neo-Nazi skinheads were inviting people from all over, even overseas. There was a house on a hill just south of the Chukchansi casino where invitees were to meet before they went on to the secret location for the gathering.

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