LA QUINTA, Calif. - When his phone rang at 2 a.m. one Saturday, Woody Johnson was startled, and a bit nervous.
"I figured anybody calling at that time in the morning is up to no good," Johnson said. "So I just hang up."
Johnson didn't believe the voice on the other end of the line was really a sheriff's officer trying to get someone to let him into the gated La Quinta community Johnson lives in. He was surprised to learn the next day, it was a sheriff's officer calling random residents in the middle of the night.
"I just felt that certainly the police would have either a key, or some kind of common access code to get in," Johnson said.
Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Riverside County Sheriff's Department Captain Kevin Vest works out of the Palm Desert Sheriff's office, which doesn't serve La Quinta, but he admits that sheriff's officers do not always gain quick access to gated communities.
"It's a challenge to get in sometimes," Vest said. "The main reason being is there's a lot of different communities and they use a lot of different technologies as far as getting law enforcement and fire into their locations."
The fire department says it does not face the same challenge.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Rick Griggs says there is never a situation where, "We're sitting at a gate waiting to call somebody and waiting for them to pick up the phone," Griggs said. "We know they may be incapacitated. There may not be anybody home, or someone may not be there."
Cal Fire can sometimes open unmanned gates remotely through a lighting system, and they always have access to a key. Griggs says every unguarded residential gate must have an emergency key slot called a Knox Box. Every Cal Fire vehicle carries a Knox Box key that will get them behind any gate in the area they cover.
"They're all secured," Griggs said of the keys. "They're issued to the apparatus in a coded box that basically will tell us number one what time they're opened and whose personal identification code opened that box up to get the key out."
The sheriff's department does not secure its keys the same way, and they don't have enough for every officer.
"It makes me think that really its just poor planning," Johnson said. "I mean how difficult is it to have a key and then keep track of it?"
The Palm Springs police department says every officer on its force has a Knox Box key.
"All patrol officers are issued those keys," Palm Springs Police Sergeant, Harvey Reed said. "We frequently use them to access gated communities."
How do sheriff's officers get into gated communities?
"We do have some keys," Vest said. "A lot of different locations have codes. We have a law enforcement code that we use to get in. Others have garage door opener type of things where we can get in that way. Or, sometimes we end up following residents in if we don't happen to have a current code."
Vest thinks the best solution for the sheriff's department - which provides the police force for Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Coachella, and unincorporated areas - is to have an internal data base of access codes, which he says the department is building now.
"We'd prefer to use a code," Vest said. "We can put that on our car computers so that any officer that goes to any gated community, if we have a law enforcement code, they have easy access to that."
Johnson says there's got to be an easier way than dialing up random residents from a call box at the gate in the middle of the night.
"A gate is supposed to keep the bad guys out," Johnson said. "But you want to let the good guys in when they're needed."
CBS Local 2 stands for you. We want to help you help the sheriff's department do its job. Captain Vest says residents can contact the sheriff's department to make sure they have the current gate code to access your community when you need them most. Check with your home owners association, or contact the sheriff's department.
The Palm Desert sheriff's office number is: (760) 836-1600.
The Thermal sheriff's office number that serves La Quinta and other ares in the east valley is: (760) 863-8990
e-mail Rancho Mirage: Ranchomiragepolice@riversidesheriff.org
e-mail Palm Desert: Ranchomiragepolice@riversidesheriff.org
Police say you should not let someone in to your gated community ... unless you can verify it is a first responder. You can do that by calling your local police or fire department.