EVERETT — Steve Williams grew up in Florida at the height of the space race, a half-hour from the launch pads of what was then known as Cape Kennedy. He dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Instead he found a career as mission control, for Snohomish County’s police and firefighters. In three and a half decades, the most-senior dispatcher at SNOPAC has been on the other end of the line for the first breaths and last breaths of many people. He has handled an estimated 350,000 emergency calls.
Williams retires at the end of the month.
“Look at anything that’s been in The Everett Herald on the front page in the last 35 years,” said Kevin Hanrahan, a supervisor. “There’s a good possibility that Steve had something to do with it, or worked through part of it.”
As late as the 1970s, people used to call police stations directly. Just a few years after 911 began in the county, Williams joined a team of SNOPAC dispatchers in the courthouse basement in 1982. Over the next decade, emergency calls were handwritten onto cards and zipped around the room on a track. Often, dispatchers had to interpret bad penmanship. Sometimes cards would fall off, and literally slip through the cracks of the room.
Things have changed a bit.
“Everything is computerized now, except us,” Williams said. “We’re the human element.”
Williams’ console in the center is a wall of screens: a collage of maps, charts and tiny fonts. It can be a wearying job. In call after call after call, people are having the worst days of their lives. Few dispatchers last as long as Williams.
To him, burning out is not an option.
“I just can’t imagine doing that,” he said. “I mean, there’s always a challenge here. It does eventually become routine, sparked by periods of total un-routine. Burnout is something I’m not even sure I understand.”
“I can vouch for that,” chimed in Steve Dittoe, operations manager at SNOPAC. Like many co-workers, Dittoe will miss Williams’ institutional knowledge of geography and local history, his upbeat attitude and his flexibility in adapting to technology, both in the call center and the world outside.
“He’s more like our new young millennials coming in, at adopting technology, than a traditional senior employee,” Dittoe said.
Cellphones have complicated the job. When you call 911, the first thing the dispatcher will ask is your location. If police or paramedics don’t know where to go, they can’t help you.
Snohomish County’s population has doubled since the 1980s, according to U.S. Census records. Call volumes exploded, too. SNOPAC’s biggest partners are Everett police and the sheriff’s office. The center serves another 35 police and fire agencies, mostly in the north half of the county. Williams will retire amid a complex, pending merger with SNOCOM, the dispatch center for the county’s southwest corner.
Williams still remembers his first 911 call, a woman who would phone in just to rant. He treated it like a real call until she hung up on him, and his trainer explained that would happen a few times a day. He learned to roll with it.
He has taken many confounding calls. Cats in trees. Drivers looking for conditions in the passes. Once, around Thanksgiving, a woman rang asking for the best way to cook a turkey. He’s seen his share of nonstop days, too. On Independence Day, in recent years, calls soared from 50 per hour to about 800 because of fireworks complaints.
He has never once dialed 911 for an emergency of his own, he said. His wife made that call, once, to report a fraud case.
The most memorable days are the most tragic. Off the top of his head, he recalls it was Presidents Day weekend in 1987 when he took a call about a fire at Everett Community College. His speech slowed as he described Engine 2’s call for help that morning. They were trapped by a rolling ball of flame. One firefighter died. Three others escaped.
“Nearly everybody rushed to that part of the fire,” he said. “We still had units responding to the scene. So we had to have somebody rush to the station to pick up air bottles, because they were all running out of air. Hearing their voices come over the air. ‘We’re trapped.’ … They had to drop down and follow their hose out. You never forget the sound of that.”
He was dispatching on the day of the Oso mudslide, and countless other tragedies.
This week Gov. Jay Inslee sent a message thanking Williams for helping hundreds of thousands of families in the county.
What if he could give all of those callers one piece of advice?
“Stay calm,” Williams said. “Just answer the questions the dispatcher asks you. We tell people, ‘We’re trained to take calls. They’re not trained to make calls.’”
Perhaps no dispatcher in the county has saved as many lives, as a vital link to first-responders, or through telephone CPR. As for those he couldn’t save, Williams tries to stay positive.
“We handle it by doing our job,” he said. “Some people, you can’t help them. But you do what you can to help them.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.