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Operation Serenade: Simi Valley PD and President Reagan's Funeral
Author: Lynn Freeman, Communications Manager, Simi Valley PD
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,
As a dispatcher with the Simi Valley (CA) Police Department since 1977, promoted to the position of Communications Manager in 1990, I have been involved with many citywide incidents from earthquakes, to fires, to floods, to the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with five living Presidents attending. But nothing has come close to being involved in managing public safety during the internment of Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States. This event was different in every way, emotionally, historically, internationally, and patriotically.
On Saturday, June 5th, 2004, I received a call at 2:05 PM that the end had come for President Reagan. Even though we all expected it, nonetheless, it sent a rush through me to know that he was gone. The only tribute I could personally give would be to dedicate myself to providing any service I could to make sure the proper level of respect, dignity, and affection he deserved was met. We were about to make history. I reported to work by 3:00 PM
Shortly after 3:00 PM on Saturday, we had a brief meeting to try and get our bearings. We set in motion a plan that was nine years in the making, knowing that it was a framework subject to change, and that change was the order of the day. The Reagan demise plan was dubbed “Operation Serenade.” The key to our success was flexibility and communication. One of the first realizations I had was that this was going to be big, really big. And as much as I wanted to stop the world and dedicate every resource to honoring him, I knew I couldn’t do that. We still had a city we had to serve.
My first task was to set up our Amber Alert Center and staff it with volunteers. I knew the phone calls would be starting soon. I needed to keep the phone calls out of my dispatch center to allow the dispatchers to continue to do their jobs, but also needed to make sure we were there to answer the questions and be responsive to the public. We established a City Information Line and announced it on the Reagan Library web site and on the local AM radio channel. Additionally, flyers were distributed in the immediate impact area of the Library and provided to our PBX operator. The line began ringing almost immediately. This Center would remain open throughout the week and weekend following the funeral. It worked out very well. As we received the most up to date information including funeral arrangements, flower drop off instructions, road closures and directions, we provided it to these employees first. This allowed them to provide the most accurate information to callers – some of which came from as far away as Florida. The volunteers staffing these phones were patient, informative, and sympathetic. We couldn’t have asked for better representatives.
The first day lasted until midnight. We were to report back at 08:00 AM. No one complained. I could barely sleep that night, with too much to think about.
Sunday, June 6, was a day of meetings, briefings, strategy sessions, scheduling issues, logistics, security concerns, and information gathering. We learned the basics of what the week would entail. There were many law enforcement agencies to coordinate with as well as Reagan family members and Reagan Library staff. We learned that the President would arrive in our city the next morning to lay in repose at the Library. Everything had to be ready, and everything had to be right. You feel all eyes were upon you. There was no room for error. We were in the spotlight with over 500 media members on site. We had to do our best, the first time; there was no dress rehearsal.
Sunday evening, as we were winding down from the day of planning, our Dispatch Center began to get calls from a beautiful residential area in a canyon that a coyote had attacked two small children. Then another call from one street over that another child was bit and finally a call from around the corner. This time the animal had grabbed a three-year-old boy and tried to drag him from his front porch. His mother was only steps away and managed to get the animal to drop her son as she ran at it and screamed. Officers arrived quickly. The wild animal was unimpressed by their uniforms or command presence. The coyote charged them. It didn’t make it very far. Animal Control notified to pick up the animal. Four children in the ER room. Word is, following a few stitches, they will all be okay. This very strange call went well. Good thing. Our city was now overrun with press people; we didn’t need anything to go wrong. Amazing how life goes on.
Later that same evening it was announced that we would have a daily evening briefing to summarize how the day went and discuss the events of the next day. This was an excellent idea in that numerous details changed day-to-day. There were many changes to be covered each night. It was also decided that an e-mail would be distributed to every member of the agency each day to provide updates and keep everyone in the loop. Our agency experienced difficulty with communication in the past and we wanted to make sure there was a tool in place to let people know what was going on. It was very effective. No one could give you the line, “Well, no one told me.” We called it a night, but there wasn’t any way could I sleep, with the President arriving in the morning.
We report early on Monday, and are notified that the motorcade from the mortuary in Santa Monica left right on time. We are ready. It will be a fast moving motorcade to the Library. I wanted to scream, He’s coming, he’s coming. I don’t. I manage to maintain my professionalism. Our eyes are glued to the TV in the Dispatch Center. Here they come. Again, the phones start to ring in the Dispatch Center; a bank robbery has just occurred. We have a response time of less than one minute. We cordon off a neighborhood where the robber fled and have it locked down quickly. An officer finds the suspect hiding behind a parked car. He is taken into custody. During his interview, he explains that he selected Simi Valley that morning because he believed we would be too busy with the President to take care of our City. He was wrong. Subsequent interviews with the suspect revealed he was a serial bank robber wanted by the FBI for 12 bank robberies over the last year. Nice work by everyone. Back to the task at hand.
In the meantime, the President has arrived. No problems. He, Mrs. Reagan and family arrive safely. It is our turn to take care of him.
We have a good plan. People wanting to file past the casket to pay their respects will park at our local college (which has closed for the day) and be bussed to the Library. There are 16 busses and 6 reserve busses ready to go. This is no way near enough. Did we forget how loved he was? The hours to view the casket are extended almost immediately. The number of busses is more than doubled. The mourners have to be cut off at some point on Tuesday evening. The line has been endless. They are stopped at 106,000 mourners. There isn’t time to get any more through. Many are disappointed. During this organized chaos, not a single person is injured during the viewing process, not even a fender-bender. The only crime associated with this event was a camera that turned up missing from an unlocked car at the college.
I visit the Library on Monday to see my favorite leader. I want to check on him, make sure he is okay. I feel a personally responsibility to make sure that everything goes according to plan. There is a very positive, honorable atmosphere at the Library. It is calming and heart warming to be there.
I know this will never happen again. This was historical. I needed to allow everyone that wanted to have a slice of this event be part of it. I rotate the Dispatchers out of the Center to allow each one to go to the Library to pay their respects. They are all in formal “Class A” uniforms. They look sharp. They represent our agency, my Dispatch Center, with dignity and professionalism, and I am proud of them. They are appreciative for the chance to view the President. I also arrange for coverage so that the volunteers working the phones can be taken to the Library. They have provided hours and hours of service and haven’t had the chance to pay their respects. They come back refreshed and even more dedicated to the cause, some teary eyed.
They announce that Tuesday night there would be a brief window of opportunity that evening for law enforcement to pay their respects. I just worked a 15-hour day, but it doesn’t faze me. There is no way I’d miss it. I arrive early and find that I have 10 minutes alone with the President. I am taken aback by the magnitude of the situation. It’s me, the Honor Guards, and President Reagan. I am overwhelmed. I say my personal good-bye to my favorite leader. It is a moment I will never forget. I stay for the changing of the guard. It takes my breath away.
Tuesday comes to a close. We will have a break on Wednesday and Thursday while the President is in Washington, DC. We will need the break to prepare for Friday, which is game day. Show time. Our final farewell.
Early Friday morning, my Tactical Dispatch Team sets up a command post in a park close to the Library. It is a portable dispatch center. The radios and antennas are in place, the briefcase CAD computers are working great, cell phones charged and ready, awning is up, and the plasma TV monitor is working fine. The Team will also assist at the V.I.P. vehicle checkpoint. Everything is perfect. We are ready early. It will be hours before the motorcade returns. We want nothing left to chance.
Dispatcher at SIMI Valley PD's 9-1-1 Center.
As the day goes on and activity picks up, we are provided yet another meal from the logistics staff. Since these events started, the staff has met every need of the personnel on duty. This crew accommodates meals, drinks, water, sunscreen, snacks, and any other need for everyone committed to this detail. Even better, the meals are warm, the drinks are cold, and the sunscreen is SPF30. They are incredible. They make it easy to be there. Everyone plays a part.
Everyone has been in Class A uniforms all week. We pass each other at the dry cleaners. All rush orders, but still no one complains. The level of commitment, pride, and honor is something I have never seen before. It’s powerful to be part of.
As the hour approaches, a sense of sadness comes over us. This will be the last good-bye. There is a lump in your throat as the day continues. We are notified that Air Force One will drop to 3,000 feet as it passes over the Library en route to Point Mugu. Here it comes; we can see it clearly. We can actually read Air Force One on the side of the blue and white plane. The pilot dips his wings. The hard stuff is starting.
The plane has landed some distance away and the motorcade has left the airport. It will come down the local freeway and then take a series of surface streets. The freeway is a virtual parking lot. All vehicles traveling northbound have stopped. The drivers have abandoned their vehicles in the lanes of traffic on a major freeway to view the motorcade traveling southbound. Another outpouring of affection. It seems endless. The lump grows bigger.
The motorcade route is lined with a quarter of a million people. All of them are patient and respectful; they are there just to wave a last goodbye. All good people. There are no issues with the large crowd. I have a chance to be part of a small group to stand at attention and salute the motorcade as it turns into the driveway of the Library. Two of my Tactical Dispatchers and I jumped at the chance when offered; the honor is more than we can describe. We will be one of the last to view the President and Mrs. Reagan. I was shaking as I stood in formation. As the motorcade passed by, Nancy waved, and the General escorting her saluted back to us.
Simi Valley PD Tactical Command Post during Operation Serenade
The next hour is a private ceremony for intimate guests at the Library. The President himself selected this forum. As the sun sets on the mountains on this beautiful day, he is quietly laid to rest. It seems like something out of a movie, or maybe a dream. Nothing could have been more perfect. After the Howitzer cannon’s deafening thunder shakes the earth of Simi Valley and the F16 jet fighters fly overhead in a missing man formation, Ronald Reagan’s family gives words of praise and love, and finally, the bagpipe plays. It’s over for me. My first tears of the week. We can’t do anymore for him now other than to watch over him in our city for all eternity. We have done our best. It’s time to go home.
Tactical Dispatchers handled field communications, documentation, and resource accountability during Operation Serenade
Like most of our employees, I worked over 100 hours during this weeklong event. In a sense, it was magical. Absolutely no one complained… about anything. Once again, this final day went flawlessly. Not a single negative incident, injury, or accident. The weather was perfect and we could not have asked for anything better.
Operation Serenade, a national security event, was over, but our job was just beginning. Visitorship to the Reagan Library increased ten fold, and our commitment to ensuring safe and pleasant passage to the Library continues. A total of 260 employees of the City of Simi Valley contributed to the success of this event. The City spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on the event. This money could not have been better spent. But the time and money are inconsequential; it was simply a personal honor to be part of it.
Lynn Freeman, ENP, is the Communications Manager for Simi Valley Police Department in Southern California, with 27 years in public safety dispatching, starting with the agency in 1977 as a dispatcher and promoted to Communications Manager in 1990.