March 19, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
Think snow—360 inches of snow to be exact. Snow the height of a 30-story building and people with shovels, snow blowers, and snowplows buzzing around like gnats to get rid of the snow before the next storm arrives. Think of signing off your CAD, climbing a ladder, and shoveling the snow off the roof of your communication center, being careful not to cover the police chief’s official car.
Now you can picture Valdez, Alaska.
But Lorrie Mott and William Comer don’t just think about it. They live it.
Mott is an Emergency Medical Dispatcher for the City of Valdez, which is at the head of a deep fjord in the Prince William Sound most might remember for the huge and environmentally disastrous oil spill of March 24, 1989. Although the oil from the spill 25 miles away never reached Valdez—the oil spill is actually named for the oil tanker Exxon Valdez that ran aground—the city became the center for clean-up operations.
Mott’s family moved there when she was four years old. That was more than a decade after the city was nearly destroyed by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, forcing residents to relocate their homes and the town four miles farther inland. It was also several years before completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, terminating in Valdez, but just about the same time Comer, the Valdez police chief, decided he no longer wanted to travel the Far North by thumb.
“It was 1980 and I was on a mission to hitchhike through Alaska from Washington state,” Comer said. “I ended up staying. There’s no place like it.”
Mott and Comer are not only dazzled by the Valdez they remember pre-oil spill but, also, the beauty and adventure that still remain.
Comer worked construction and odd jobs for two years, joined the volunteer fire department, and in 1982 was hired full time as a firefighter/EMT. During the past 30 years he has worked for the city in various capacities leading to his current position heading up the police department. He and his 10 sworn officers provide the primary law enforcement for 270 square miles that include the city proper, four outlying subdivisions, and the terminus of the pipeline. The police department is part of a city administrative complex bordered by grocery and hardware stores, a Valdez history museum, gift shops, outfitters, service shops, a hospital, and schools.
Comer likes winter weather and the stability and consequent job mix the small coastal city offers. He polices a population of about 4,000, which doubles during the tourist season. His department handles about 300 criminal and 50 felony cases a year. The clean up during the oil spill temporarily swelled the population to 15,000; the number of arrests quadrupled.
“That was a tremendous problem because we’re a small operation always trying to maximize what a small staff can do,” Comer said. “For the most part Valdez has a positive, progressive environment.”
Mott recalls the “craziness” of a busy town during pipeline construction, causing her family to move out, and the way things settled down enough for her to move back in for the amenities Valdez offers. Mott’s into fitness and, also, basically anything that has to do with the outdoors. She is the dispatch supervisor for the police department, although the title far from fits her job description.
Mott does everything expected and more.
Dispatch is her primary responsibility, of course, but with no lack of jobs lining up behind her CAD. She and the six full-time staff members, known as Public Safety Technicians (PSTs), are cross-trained as dispatchers and corrections officers. They answer fire, police, and medical calls and staff the city jail. Calls requiring emergency assistance run to about 500 a year, while calls for service top 5,500. They answer calls common to every dispatch center—domestics, drugs, and traffic accidents—and calls unique to their type of environment—bear alerts, moose standoffs, and tourists ill-prepared for conditions and navigationally challenged.
They are computer savvy, going to full CAD operations in 2006 from a dispatch system relying on notes handwritten during phone calls and transmitted over the radios to public safety personal and EMS. They assist with tactical communications off site and, as Mott said, “all other duties as assigned.”
They also take on job responsibilities unique to their relatively small operation. The PST staff books prisoners into the 4-cell, 12-bunk jail located in the other wing of the building, and they clean the cells. They are Taser certified for prisoner transport, pepper spray certified, and firearms qualified. The PSTs are trained in defensive tactics and know how to collect evidence at a crime scene. Mott is the evidence custodian.
Mott enjoys the variety. She even wrote the center’s training manual.
“There’s always something going on but we’re not as wild west as it sounds,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
And that includes the snow shoveling.
A city emergency was declared during the 30 days of straight heavy snowfall from December 2011 through January 2012. A record 19 inches fell one day, shutting down Richardson Highway—the only highway in and out of Valdez. Despite the city’s big fleet for snow removal, Valdez hired 150 people to shovel snow loads exceeding capacity off the roofs of every city building. Mott was quick to grab a shovel and, intermittently, for the next two weeks climbed up onto the roof to save the building from collapsing under the weight of accumulating snow.
“All maintenance went to snow removal,” Comer said. “We kept piling it up on the park strips and playgrounds.”
Snow drifting to eight feet high and 272 inches of total snowfall by January, however, did not crush daily routines. Schools opened on time each day, and employees of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company went to work moving oil and removing snow. Snow pushed to the edge of roads and sidewalks created white-walled tunnels and canyons. People unable to leave their homes simply stayed put and took the snow in stride.
Mott admits Valdez isn’t everyone’s dreamscape, and she has a keen sense of the type of people who will last on the job.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” she said. “If they like the outdoors and have the ability to do more than one thing at a time, they find this a great place to be.”