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The release, signed by the four volunteer firefighters, stated they will continue to maintain equipment and perform the best they can but warned “emergency response will be unpredictable and minimal.” Also, no medical response will be officially offered.
Tenakee, other Southeast fire departments struggle with limited resources 020117 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly The release, signed by the four volunteer firefighters, stated they will continue to maintain equipment and perform the best they can but warned “emergency response will be unpredictable and minimal.” Also, no medical response will be officially offered.

Michael Penn

A Capital City Fire/Rescue firefighter mans a safety hose during a practice fire at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center in Septermer 2016.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Story last updated at 2/1/2017 - 12:44 pm

Tenakee, other Southeast fire departments struggle with limited resources

On Jan. 9, the Tenakee Springs volunteer fire department sent out a notice to the town’s resident’s saying they are no longer able to assure effective firefighting in case of an emergency.

The release, signed by the four volunteer firefighters, stated they will continue to maintain equipment and perform the best they can but warned “emergency response will be unpredictable and minimal.” Also, no medical response will be officially offered.

“We are working with the City to find innovative ways to meet our community’s emergency services needs. In order to do this, the entire community will need to come together to provide ideas, support and volunteer time,” the release stated.

The cause for lack of service?

Mainly, lack of volunteers.

Ken Merrill, the fire chief in Tenakee and owner of the Tenakee Market, said there’s a lot that goes into it.

Volunteerism is by definition unpaid, and everyone needs a day job. Merrill, for example, needs to leave town frequently on business. Sometimes, so do the other volunteers, like Gordon Chew and Kevin Allred. Some, like Steve Lewis, live off the grid, he said. All of that means response time and number of volunteers can vary.

“The volunteer department is the community department. The community wants a fire department — they want help. It’s what volunteering is all about,” Merrill said.

Ideally, he would have at least 10 volunteers trained and ready to go in case of an emergency, and if someone was out of town or couldn’t be contacted, it wouldn’t compromise the team’s ability to put out a fire.

The community is aging, Merrill said, so there are fewer young people to take on the physical difficulties of firefighting. Merrill said it’s similar to the problem of keeping the Tenakee school open due to low enrollment numbers. The oldest person in the department is in their mid to late 60s while the youngest is 47.

“People don’t want to be involved in the political end of it,” he said. “People just want to be there holding the end of a hose.”

During an emergency the community comes out, but most don’t have the training or equipment to protect themselves or others. He clarified that just because people aren’t officially volunteering doesn’t mean folks won’t come out to help in case of an emergency. People can help in a variety of ways, like driving to get a piece of needed equipment, allowing the firefighters to stay where they’re needed.

“We don’t have a 911 service here,” Merrill said. “We would like it but it’s not here. You call on your neighbors.”

Lack of volunteers isn’t the only issue – the group also faces problems like lack of up-to-date equipment and training.

Firefighters aren’t called too often in a town of around 100 people. Any kind of fire that requires their presence happens about every five years. Medical needs are far more common – averaging about one a month. Every one of the current volunteers has had basic first aid training, and about four years ago, they received their emergency trauma technician certification, which expires after two years according to the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians.

Merrill said it’s likely that in the event of a medical emergency the known doctor or other person in town who has medical knowledge will be called before the fire department, functioning a bit different than cities like Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.

Another problem is retaining trained people in Tenakee.

“Tenakee is pretty transient,” Merrill said.

The volunteers would like more consistent training, but that requires several hurdles. First, it isn’t easy for volunteers to leave their full time work to travel for training.

To bring in a trainer usually requires a minimum number of participants to make it worthwhile. Then they have to house the trainer, and provide food and transportation.

The issue of funding doesn’t end there. Equipment ages and needs to get replaced. The fire truck, Merrill said, is from 1976. In Tenakee, the ocean serves as the hydrant.

To pay for new equipment or training, the fire department has to do fundraising or go through grants.

The release the Tenakee fire department sent encouraged the community to keep prevention in mind, asking residents to take note of their household fire extinguishers’ locations, and to be careful with fire, candles, stoves and heaters.

The rest of Southeast

The Weekly reached out to other Southeast Alaska volunteer fire departments to see if they experienced similar issues.

Roger Williams, the chief in Angoon, said lack of equipment is a concern. Recently, Ketchikan gave Angoon a fire truck; their previous one was from 1978. The department has nine volunteers, but other community members will get involved as needed in case of a fire. Williams’ concern is whether people have the proper training or gear—especially gear.

“With the lack of equipment, it’s just scary,” Williams said. He’d like more sets of bunker gear for people’s protection.

Recently, there was a house fire in Kake. Kake fire chief Calvin Wilson said he could see the smoke from the house as he headed to the fire hall.

By the time he and Assistant Chief Kip Howard were on the scene, “flames were already shooting out the window.” Fortunately, no one was inside, and they were able to put the fire out.

“It’s a nightmare thinking what could happen … you never know what will transpire. It’s scary to think. Are we ready for a fire? It’s something we need to address to keep our community a little more safer,” Wilson said.

The department normally has a steady eight people who volunteer, but after the fire, its numbers swelled to 20 volunteers, closer to what they used to have.

“Hopefully this will open up the younger generation’s eyes as far as their fire department goes and volunteering,” Wilson said.

Right now, they only have 10 sets of functional bunker gear, and Wilson doesn’t trust their air packs, which are old. To equip the next generation, they’ll need more equipment and more training.

Exploring options

Training and Education Bureau Supervisor for the Department of Fire and Life Safety Jan Mitchell said these issues are common in not just Southeast Alaska but also other rural areas in the state.

She had a variety of resources to recommend.

She brought up the Alaska Fire Conference, which is being held in Sitka this year Sept. 25-30, which will have leadership and safety training. There are cost share opportunities for travel for this event. It’s an opportunity for fire chiefs to gain more experience and network with other communities.

Fire departments can work together to come up with more effective ways to manage their departments; she gave Craig, Klawock and Hydaburg as an example, where they divvy up duties like grant writing, training and other administrative tasks between the three departments.

Like the Tenakee release, Mitchell also emphasized preventive measures for the community to take so fires aren’t problems in the first place, like installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

“They are under stress to provide for their communities and families,” she said of volunteer fire fighters, commenting that they are in a tough spot trying to cover the expenses of training and equipment.

“We have resources with thumb-drives with information with grant opportunities, and other resources with the hands-on training,” she said. Fire departments should contact the Training and Education Bureau for more information.

Mitchell recommended speaking with Steve Schreck, the Rural Fire Training Specialist, at (907) 269-6083 who can discuss individual fire departments’ options.

Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Clara Miller at clara.miller@capweek.com.