Real Estate Pros' Eyes, Ears Keep Communities Safe

August 1, 1997

Q: What has 5,400 eyes and drives around British Columbia?

A: The 2,700 real estate practitioners involved in Realty Watch, a crime prevention network in suburban Vancouver.

The network, organized by the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board and the local police, connects practitioners in Surrey, White Rock, Langley, North Delta, Abbotsford, and Mission through computers, cellular phones, pagers, and E-mail.

"Because we're out in our cars so much, we're able to notice what's going on and what shouldn't be going on. We become the eyes and ears of the community," says Mary Wade Anderson, president of FVREB.

If there's an emergency or the local police are hunting for a suspect, the police department contacts FVREB with instructions, pertinent information on the case, a file number, and the name of an investigating officer. FVREB then springs into action and initiates its Realty Watch fan-out system. It sends a message on the computer bulletin board and also alerts 20 member offices. Each office then sends out pages to all its members.

Practitioners are trained to assist in crime prevention and in the search for missing persons by being observant and reporting any information or suspicious activity to 911 operators.

Even when there's no emergency, practitioners are routinely on the lookout for suspicious activity--such as people behaving oddly at open houses and unfamiliar cars circling an area--and they always watch for children who seem out of place, alone, or distressed.

To keep volunteers sharp and evaluate the effectiveness of the program, the Surrey police periodically sends out a message asking practitioners to keep an eye out for a particular vehicle.

Last year they were asked to spot a 1995 Astro minivan and report sightings of the van, its license plate number, and the time and location. Seventy-four practitioners successfully spotted the vehicle and called in information on it.

Wade Anderson says that Realty Watch could be useful in major cities, but she believes such programs are especially effective in the suburbs. "In suburbs and subdivisions where people are closely knit, it's invaluable. People get used to others' comings and goings and the cars they drive and can easily recognize when something isn't right."

The Realty Watch network hasn't busted any serial killers, and there's no real way to measure the program's success in terms of arrests, but everyone in the communities--including criminals-knows there are extra pairs of eyes watching. "Even if we save one lost child, it's worth it," says Wade Anderson.

The program has also heightened the image of practitioners. "Practitioners talk about the program at listing presentations, and people feel that Realty Watch gives them an extra level of security," adds Wade Anderson. "We're very concerned about our communities, and we're out there to help prevent crime in any way we can."

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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