Alaska volunteer fire departments suffering staff shortages

Published: Feb. 17, 2019 at 8:36 PM AKST
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Volunteer fire departments are asking for help to replenish declining participation in communities across Alaska.

Fire chiefs from Girdwood Fire and Rescue and Seward Volunteer Fire Department said low volunteer turnout is a statewide epidemic.

“Community volunteering for the fire services is down nationwide 12 percent,” Girdwood Fire and Rescue Chief Michelle Weston said. “So what we are seeing in Girdwood, and also in other communities around Alaska, is a decrease in community members willing to step up and participate to be volunteer firefighters.“

Volunteers comprise 70 percent of firefighters in the United States, saving localities like Girdwood and Seward an estimated $46.9 billion per year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

But Weston said local volunteer fire departments are struggling to meet staffing needs. In fact, participation is so low that Girdwood Fire and Rescue has extended emergency services to a vast area, including Hope, where volunteer numbers are so low they can’t sustain a fire station.

“Girdwood also responds up to Turnagain Pass, and we are currently also supporting the Hope area as we’re able to with staffing, because there’s no Hope fire department at the moment that’s active in responding,” Weston said.

There is a similar situation in Seward, according to Seward Volunteer Fire Department Chief Eddie Athey.

“I agree with her,” Athey said. “It truly is an almost epidemic statewide.”

Athey and crew

on Saturday, with the help of good Samaritans and neighboring Bear Creek Fire Department.

“We had plenty of folks today, but that may not be the case tomorrow,” Athey said Saturday. “You just never know.”

There are many possible explanations for low volunteer turnout, but Athey and Weston are trying to change the trend, no matter the cause.

“It’s up to us as a community to recruit each other for the fire department,” Weston said. “I think with most fire departments, people are a little intimidated by coming in to see the fire department or not sure if they could do it, but I think the message needs to be that the fire department is something that anybody in the community can join. You don’t necessarily have to have the skills walking in.”

Weston said Girdwood Fire and Rescue is comprised of less than 50 percent volunteers who actually live in the Girdwood area. The rest, she said, commute from Anchorage, making effective response times more difficult.

“Currently, we have 46 percent Girdwood members, and the rest are Anchorage members, and they are doing a wonderful job, but we need to have community members volunteer because in the middle of the night, when we have these calls, we are running with who we have,” Weston said. “And with all the increase in tourism in the area, we are often getting two calls at once, so we need to have people in the community who are able to come out and respond.”

Athey and Weston both encourage Alaskans to seek out their local fire departments if they have any desire to volunteer.