PUBLISHED: 5:14 PM on Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Fire chaplains provide support, counseling to Juneau residents
In times of crisis and in times of need, there are people who are standing by-ready and willing to lend a hand. At Capital City Fire/Rescue in Juneau, long-time chaplain Sam Dalin and Thomas Matthews fight a different kind of fire.

The chaplains, whose services are volunteer-based, provide support emotionally and spiritually to people experiencing loss and trauma in serious situations. They're on call 24 hours, seven days a week.

Dalin, 54, is a joint chaplain, volunteering for the police department as well. He has been offering his services in Juneau right after 9/11, and started his career in the fire fighting business around 1972.

He said the chaplain's job is to be the first responder as far as spiritual help, to walk them through it, let them know what's happening, and comfort them with compassion.

"The hardest part is walking away because you don't know the people but you're there at the hardest times in their lives," Dalin said.

Photo by Abby LaForce
  Capital City Fire/Rescue chaplains Thomas Matthews, left, and Sam Dalin are on call 24 hours, seven days a week to provide services in times of crisis for Juneau residents.
"The good side is I've gotten to do weddings as well. The rough side is I've done memorials-those are tough," Dalin said.

Another rewarding aspect is when you see people later down the road, and some of them will stop and talk to you, he said.

"You respond to CPR in progress, bad traffic accidents whether there is a fatality as well as house fires. On the bad side, you are (present) if there are deaths-it's their choice. Everything from deaths, suicides to non-contested deaths. Sometimes on a bad accident we respond to the hospital," he said.

At times you're there for 10 minutes and sometimes you're there for three to four hours, Dalin said.

He's found that their presence brings comfort to some, and said there have been times where he just sat there without speaking for hours.

In addition to volunteering, Dalin has been pastor for River Glory Church, for the past eight years. With a growing family including his wife, two daughters and one granddaughter-he keeps busy.

Matthews, 49, was inspired by chaplains Dalin and Brian Ewing, who recently stepped down from his volunteer position, at a pastor fellowship meeting.

"I was listening to Sam and Brian talk and thought it was something that I wanted to plug into. The chief has asked if I asked if I work in the first six months training program with Sam. I ride along, and observe the ropes," Matthews said.

He has been volunteering for the past four months, and is also pastor at Douglas Island Bible Church.

"In an emergency trauma situation there is a definitely a spiritual experience as well as a physical impact that we try to help them. The more serious the experience the more clearly it needs it," he said.

"It takes someone who can look at the tragedy and the pain people are going through with the outlook of helping the person get through it. In the midst of the tragedy, we can provide home," Matthews said.

Ewing, who volunteered as chaplain since January 2006, said you have to be compassionate and have the ability to empathize with someone.

"You have a mom looking at you like you can do something to turn it back, but there's nothing you can do," he said.

He described a situation where he spent time with a young boy whose mother had died, and has two brothers.

"This 10-year-old boy said (to me), 'I don't know you at all, but I feel really close to you,'" Ewing said. "I just about lost it."

The chaplains also provide services to the Coast Guard and the state troopers as well as the cruise ships, and work with the tourists enduring loss.

"You just do it to show there's some compassion, empathy and the love of God out there," he said.

On the flip side, when all is done you ask yourself, 'why do I do this?'" Dalin said. "I couldn't do it if I didn't have faith."

"I would like to knock on someone's door and say you have a baby boy, he's healthy and you can go pick him up," he said.

The chaplains are contracted through a fire pager, and every situation is different.

"I just kneel down, and you start clicking through all the stuff in your mind. The first question I ask is: 'do you have anyone I can call?'"

When the mortuary comes in that is the hardest time. Sometimes you can stay for a couple hours, but you can't talk to them because they're so emotional. You just try to talk softly and look them in the eye, Dalin said.

"It's important for them to show up with us and consult the family," said firefighter and medic Chris Brown.

With all the challenges, the long-time chaplain said he is committed to the work.

"I probably (would) do it until I'm in my 70s if they let me," he said. "If you can just help a person take another step forward, you feel like you've done something good in the biggest crisis of their lives," he said.