May. 03, 2009
James Hartley, 46, draws his gun and slowly approaches the sliding glass door. A tug to the right confirms his suspicion: It's not locked.
I can't say which alarm bells are ringing louder -- the ones inside this two-story Henderson house or the ones inside my head.
"Get over here!" Hartley yells from the living room, waving his free hand behind his back.
Earlier, Hartley said I'd be safest right behind him as he attempted to clear each room. And if we encountered multiple shooters? "Don't worry," he replied. "I'll shoot 'em all first."
Being an alarm responder sounds a lot safer in theory than it feels in practice. This is especially true when -- unlike your partner -- you have no gun, no bulletproof vest and no training.
At least Las Vegas Protective Services provided a flashlight. Any intruder we encounter can be certain of severe illumination.
From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day, Hartley answers about 20 calls like this in southern Las Vegas, his coverage area. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's a false alarm -- either a pet, the wind or an electronic malfunction.
The hundredth time, Hartley will find evidence of a burglary and summon police.
It hasn't happened to Hartley in his eight months as an alarm responder, but it's that thousandth time that concerns me right now. Did I mention that the increased likelihood of encountering an intruder here diverted us from an earlier call? (According to information electronically reported by the alarm box, not only is there an open entry, but a tripped motion sensor inside.)
Intruders can have more on their to-do lists than burgling, by the way.
"It can be a rapist or a murderer," Hartley said. "He could have a whole family of people tied up."
Actually, I don't even have my flashlight. I left it back in our security patrol car -- along with R-J photographer/videographer Jason Bean.
"I refuse to get killed for Fear and Loafing," he said.
Ten agonizing minutes later, Hartley emerges from the house. I have not moved from where I froze in place in the backyard. (My cowardice will earn our adventure a code name, according to a phone conversation between Hartley and his dispatcher that I wasn't meant to overhear: "Driving Miss Daisy.")
"Code four," Hartley says into his radio, indicating that the building is secure. He reports that an open second-floor window probably set off the alarm, with wind-blown curtains triggering the motion detector. (The unlocked back door was coincidental.)
Alarm responders earn $14 to $15 per hour to start -- and that's for actually entering the houses. Hartley co-owns Las Vegas Protective Services with three other responders, so he earns much more. The Centennial Hills-based company handles overload cases for Stanley Security Solutions and Nevada Fire Protection. In the valley, it is only such companies -- not police -- who respond to burglar alarms. (A spokesman for the Henderson Police Department said that his was the last local force to give up the practice, because of the high rate of false alarms.)
Hartley was on the job in the Bay Area for 15 years. He opted for early retirement, he says, because he "couldn't take the politics." Clearly, though, he misses the action. Earlier, he stopped his car in the middle of an empty road.
"Did you see that?" he asked.
Two male teenagers had scaled a backyard wall behind us. Hartley hung a liver-relocating U-turn and skidded in front of them.
They claimed they were headed to Shell for an Arizona iced tea, but Hartley questioned why they were walking in the wrong direction.
"Because it's past curfew and you're gonna yell at us," the taller one admitted.
Hartley asked him to recite his address, while scanning both their hands for sudden pocket dives. Hartley recognized the street name as genuine, and they complied with his request to return home.
Our radios squawk again. Hartley's handle, Adam 8, is summoned through the static and we speed toward St. Thomas More Catholic Church.
"In California, they had a rash of people breaking into churches to vandalize them," Hartley says.
This call is only four minutes old, within the five-minute time frame of an average intrusion. We were just blocks away.
"You'll be better this time," Hartley says. "You have experience."
I stick close as he tugs each new door handle and repositions himself before each new window, minimizing the target he presents.
Even though the reported breach was in the administration building, we're checking all entry points, just in case. And this time, I remembered my flashlight.
The final set of doors has a little more give than Hartley is comfortable with. He draws his gun, then tugs the handle harder.
I've written this article, so obviously nothing tragic happened. But that information is unavailable to me in the moment. And it's never available to Hartley.
"I never get scared," he said earlier. "I get aware."
Earlier, Hartley said he actually hopes to encounter an intruder on every alarm call.
"That's the catch at the end of the chase," he said.
The doors are locked. It's another false alarm.
"Probably the wind again," Hartley guesses.
Hartley drives Miss Daisy back to headquarters at 2 a.m. He tells me to keep my uniform.
"I'm guessing the pants smell pretty bad," he says.
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.