For the first installment in our series of interviews with public safety personnel, we spoke to Lt. Elizabeth DiGiovanna from the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Maia Alviar: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from originally? Where you went to school, what do you like to do outside of work?
Lt. Elizabeth DiGiovanna: I’m originally from Sacramento, California. I was born and raised there. I went all the way through two years of community college while I was living there. I’m a little bit older now, so I have three kids and most of my hobbies revolve around them and their sports and taking them to games.
MA: Sunnyvale is pretty unique in that it has its police, fire, and emergency medical services all within one department. As a lieutenant in the office of emergency services, what are your main responsibilities?
Lt. ED: Our office of emergency services lives within the department of public safety, but it’s a city resource. We support other city departments, like our public works department, community development and environmental services, to help them prepare for any disaster or major scale emergency.
Usually when we think of either of those it’s like a big earthquake or some natural disaster. This year it was COVID-19. I was the liaison between our city and the county, working through all of the public health orders and making sure that we were all providing the level of service to our city, but also remaining safe and keeping our employees safe. I helped lead that effort.
We also operate the department operation center (DOC). If there’s a big event that’s going to affect the public in Sunnyvale, we activate our DOC to come together, review information and determine our response.
I’m in a very unique position. It’s a lot of fun and I’ve learned a lot. It’s not something that I thought I would ever do. It was an unexpected opportunity that has taught me so much and allowed me to get to know other departments in the city.
MA: You spoke about a lot of different responsibilities. What do you like most about your profession? What excites you the most?
Lt. ED: What has always excited me the most was that opportunity to earn our community’s trust. I think it’s so special to be in a position where people are calling you for help and they trust you to help get them through one of the most difficult times in their life. My favorite aspect of this job is being able to answer that call and be the person that offers solutions to people in their time of need.
One thing that happens naturally and very quickly is the partnership that you build with your coworkers. You truly have to depend on your coworkers so much that you become a family. That’s like icing on the cake for me.
MA: How did you start your career in law enforcement? How old were you, what inspired you to pursue a career in public safety?
Lt. ED: People ask me this all the time, because I’m really not that tall or strong. They’re always like, “What made you decide, out of all these careers, that you wanted to go and do something that’s so physically involved?”
I didn’t have any family that was in this profession. It was the one thing in life that I was really interested in from the time that I was very young. I was taught by my grandfather that you’ll never regret living a life serving others. It’s always going to be fulfilling. You’re going to leave your mark on the world, long after you’re gone. I thought that this career field is really the best opportunity to do that.
I took an internship when I was in high school. That’s when I really started to get exposed to the law enforcement side of things. I wanted to get out of class early so that I could go to work, it was just so cool. I followed that path.
I became a young mother. I had my first child when I was 19, and I had her by myself. When I turned 21, which is the age that you’re eligible to become a peace officer, I had a two year old. It wasn’t a great time to pursue the law enforcement field. It took a little bit longer for me. I didn’t start the training process until I was 27. At that time, my kids were a little bit older and I was in a better position. I just felt like, “Hey, I got to follow this calling. I want to do something that’s going to make my kids and me proud every day.”
That’s what led me to Sunnyvale. This is the only department that I really pursued because of the three professions. Even though it was way outside of Sacramento, way outside my comfort zone, I just felt like this was going to make me happy for a really long time. And it has.
MA: I remember learning more about Sunnyvale. When I learned that all three of those services are in one department, I was like, “How do they even do that?” It seems like so much, but it looks like you really make it work.
Lt. ED: It’s funny you say that because we live in San Jose and not everybody knows that Sunnyvale does all three.
My son went to school and told his teacher that his mom was a police officer, a firefighter, and an EMT, and she totally thought he was lying. She was like, “Wait, you told me that you’re all three of these. So which one are you?” And I’m like, “No, we really are all three.” It’s a really cool thing to be able to be a part of.
MA: Public safety officers go to all three academies. Can you tell me more about that experience? What was it like, how long did it take for you, which one did you enjoy the most? Which one was the hardest?
Lt. ED: Everybody is a little bit different. Depending on when you’re hired, you can start with different academies. I went to a fire academy first and then EMT academy and then police academy.
I’m short and I don’t have the upper body strength that a lot of the guys that I work with have, so the fire academy was more physically challenging for me. It was nice to have that at the start of my training because it really helped me build my confidence in that environment.
I’m also not a huge science person. In fire, you need to know math, you need to know science, you need to know how to do certain equations. You need to know how much water you’re going to need for the type of fire that you’re facing. From an academic perspective, too, I think it was a little bit more challenging for me.
The EMT academy. I hadn’t had any medical-related training. That was challenging, but I felt like fire academy really helped kind of get me into student mode. It was a little bit easier than the initial shock of fire academy. After those two training cadres, I felt prepared for the police academy. Law enforcement was where my mind was, that was a little bit easier for me academically.
Those were my experiences. But if you talk to people who went through those academies with me, their experience may have been different. I think it depends on your background, experience and motivators. In any case, if I can do it, anyone can do it!
MA: What skills do you think are most important from someone looking to get into your profession?
Lt. ED: This is not an easy job. You have to know so many different skills, you have to maintain so much knowledge. Being in any one of these fields is a challenge in itself. Things are always changing.
Managing all of the responsibilities that are asked of you, time management, having the desire to continue learning in your profession is absolutely critical in this field.
And then the quality of resiliency. You have to adapt. One minute you may be getting called to a domestic dispute and you might be leaving that call and be on your way to a house fire. Having the ability to switch gears, go back to your training, think about the equipment you’re going to need. It becomes a skill, being able to switch hats at the drop of a dime.
MA: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to join law enforcement? You spoke about your experience being a woman and also being a young mother. Those two things had a pretty big effect on your experience entering this field. Do you have any advice for people like you who want to join public safety?
Lt. ED: If I can do it, anybody can do it. I’m 5’3.” And I had a lot going on at the time that I decided to pursue this career. Anybody can do it.
Take an opportunity to go on a lot of ride-alongs. When it comes to getting a job, fit is really important. I didn’t know anybody who worked for Sunnyvale DPS, but when I decided that this department was something that I was interested in, I went on a ride-along on the law enforcement side and on the fire side.
The people that I met were amazing, their interaction with the community was amazing. The support and the encouragement that I got from the people who were already working here just made me already feel like home. That’s unique to every department and to every city and community.
You really have to decide what your long-term goals are and where you’re going to find the experience that you want. An agency like Sunnyvale is going to offer you very different things than a huge police agency like LAPD. Thinking about those things and what you want to get out of your career is really important to identify.
Find yourself a mentor. It became so important when I started because there are hard days. It’s extremely important to have a mentor that is there to support you. Somebody that you can talk to, somebody that you can trust, somebody that will give you some ideas about how you want to navigate your professional development. I think that’s important as well, really important.
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