PUBLISHED: 6:45 AM on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Baptism by fire
New volunteers are field-tested alongside veteran firefighters
JUNEAU - Longtime firefighters know the meaning of the expression "baptism by fire." Many learned it first hand.

When Sven Pearson and Brian Duncan attended their first firefighting training in 1988 they were immediately given air packs and sent into a burning trailer.

"It was amazing. We were shocked," Pearson said. "Nowadays that would never happen. We came out (and) we were pumped. 'We want to be firefighters!'"

Said Duncan: "First fire and it's like, that's amazing, we gotta do more of that. I knew instantly ... I want to do this."

Twenty years after that first spark of interest, Duncan is now the acting volunteer chief and Pearson is the volunteer recruitment coordinator for Capital City Fire/Rescue. They watched a wave of "old-timers" depart a decade ago and since then have seen volunteer numbers dwindle throughout the department.

George Reifenstein, 58, is now the veteran in the department. When Reifenstein began volunteering in 1974, there were no fire hydrants in Auke Bay. He learned to draft water out of Auke Lake or from saltwater. During his first winter as a firefighter, he fought fire after fire in sub-zero weather.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Volunteer firefighters perform training alongside their veteran counterparts during simulated training in Juneau earlier this month.
"I ended up getting squirted with water one night and it froze on the inside of my ear," Reifenstein said.

There's less "baptism by fire" these days. Volunteers must undergo about 180 hours of training before they are allowed to enter a non-controlled fire.

Pearson thinks the amount of training required can make it more difficult to recruit and retain volunteers now. He said fire departments nationwide are seeing a drop in volunteers. Nationally, volunteers stay with departments less than three years on average, Duncan said.

There are currently about 30 active volunteers in all of Capital City Fire/Rescue, which includes five stations from Douglas to Lynn Canal. But just twenty years ago it would be common to see 30 volunteers at a single station, Pearson said. The Lynn Canal station has sat empty for years and is just now being re-staffed.

The department also has 40 paid staff members, most of whom started their careers as volunteers.

Pearson is trying a new training format with his latest group of recruits. In addition to their basic training, new recruits attend the department's ongoing drills alongside veteran volunteers. Pearson hopes this format will help new volunteers feel they are contributing to the department - and the community - early on, and be more likely to stick around.

Not just a 'guy thing'

Women have been a part of the department since the early 70's. Four of the nine students tested in the most recent firefighter training class were women. There are several women in the group of new recruits, including Kathy Miller, a registered nurse in her 50's.

"It's not just a young guy thing," Pearson said. "It's not just a 'guy' thing."

The department encourages women to become firefighters, but Shawna Libby, who has been with the department three years, said she has had community members question whether she is strong enough to be a firefighter.

"When people find out that I'm a volunteer firefighter, I get some s-- for it from people who aren't in the department," she said.

Libby started as an EMT but was eventually convinced by others in the department to become a firefighter as well.

"This department needs more firefighters, so I went and did it," she said. "It's a little harder being smaller, but it's definitely doable. You just have to work a little harder."

Libby said it's important for all firefighters to be in good shape, but it's easy for brains to trump brawn.

"It is about strength to a certain point, but it's also about technique," Libby said. "If you can't start the generator ... on the ground, then you stand up and get some leverage. It's about technique."

Libby has become one of the more active volunteers, spending about seven hours a week with the department.

"I'm starting to become one of the older people," Libby said. "Because we don't have a lot of people, the ones we do have end up doing more."

Pearson thinks there could be a lot of people who don't realize they have the ability to become a firefighter.

"I know there are people out there who are unaware of the need and that they can do (the job)," he said.

The current volunteers range from 18 years old to over 60. They are plumbers, state workers, bankers, nurses and attorneys.

Even when Reifenstein joined the department over 30 years ago, he was attracted by the inclusiveness.

"I discovered pretty quickly that the fire service is made up of people from all walks of life," he said.

Saving more than just the mailbox

When Duncan started out as a firefighter he was told to worry about saving three things: the house, the driveway and the mailbox.

But in his experience, people are often far more concerned about saving a pet than their burning home.

Reifenstein agreed. "A couple of the real satisfying things have just been saving people's pet," he said.

He helped save a hedgehog in a trailer park fire once. When a firefighter brought him a hedgehog, he directed him to take the hedgehog to the ambulance and run oxygen to it. The hedgehog survived, and Reifenstein now uses the story when he teaches fire safety in schools.

He tells school children: "Henrietta the Hedgehog survived because her nose was so close to the floor where the good air was."

Many of the calls directed to the fire department these days are not fire-related.

Duncan said he has noticed a significant increase in Emergency Medical Service calls in the last twenty years. He estimates that

about 80% of the calls now are for EMS.

About 11 department volunteers are on Special Teams such as rope rescue or wilderness response. One of Duncan's strongest memories is helping pull a girl out of a glacier crevasse.

Beyond the adrenaline

Before Duncan became a firefighter he competed in motocross in Canada. Firefighting quickly became a replacement for the adrenaline rush and focus he used to experience biking on rocky courses.

"In a fire everything slows down and you look at things and you notice things. It's a hyper-speed thing," he said.

Many firefighters acknowledge that they thrive on adrenaline, but that is not the only reason they stay in the department.

"I was raised where you always gave back to your community," Duncan said. "(Being a firefighter) is the most rewarding thing every day."

It can be both more difficult and more rewarding to be a firefighter in a small community like Juneau, where firefighters often show up to a call and see familiar faces.

"Sometimes (on calls) you run into people you know," Libby said, "and that can be really hard. But that makes it I think even more worth it because you're helping out your friends and your neighbors."

Firefighters also build strong friendships within the department.

"You build a brotherhood," Libby said. "You risk your life with these people."

One of the biggest compliments firefighters can give is to say, "I'd go in a fire with you," Duncan said, and this is something he can say about anyone in the department.

The men and women who are becoming the new veterans want to make sure they pass on traditions to the next generation.

"I'd like to see the new generation learn the history of the department, the traditions (and) what it means to be a firefighter," Pearson said. "We try to take care of each other. There's a real family atmosphere. I'd like to see that grow stronger."