For volunteer fire department, growth brings challenges

Monday, February 20, 2017 - 12:03
  • A Chugiak Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department engine. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Recent community development has turned a spotlight on the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department: Is the all-volunteer force growing quickly enough to handle the needs of the burgeoning area it serves?

The topic came up during recent community discussions about future housing projects and again during a review of a proposed new substance abuse recovery center off Eklutna Lake Road.

“I also serve on the board for our volunteer fire department, and sometimes during the day it’s a challenge to get fully staffed ambulance runs,” Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board member Debbie Ossiander told community members at a Feb. 11 board meeting.

“It’s been hard,” she said later by phone. “These are volunteers – they’ve been amazing at responding, but it’s always harder to get coverage during the day because people work.”

Responsible for the 50 square miles between the North Eagle River overpass and the Knik River Bridge, CVFRD is made up of three paid staff, approximately 100 volunteers, five stations, three ambulances and a handful of fire engines (a list made one shorter at least temproarily when an engine was struck responding to a call on Sunday).

The volunteer force is growing, according to training coordinator Chris Wilkins. So is the need for the department’s services.

Assistant chief Virginia McMichael said she’s seen demand quadruple during her time with CVFRD.

“When I started 24 years ago, we had 200-and-some calls a year,” she said during a recent interview at her Bill Lowe Station 35 office. “Now we’re running almost 900 calls a year.”

Up to 80 percent of those calls are for EMT service – a number on par with the national average, McMichael said. Crews respond to medical emergencies at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center and car accidents on the Glenn Highway; in the summer, there’s a predictable influx of calls to popular outdoor recreation spots like Eklutna Lake and Thunderbird Falls, the assistant chief said. Deteriorating road conditions prompt a further increase in calls.

“When they resurfaced the highway through here, we noticed a big reduction in the number of vehicle accidents we go to,” McMichael said. “We can tell the ruts are getting bad again, because now we go to a lot more vehicle accidents.”

A long-term surge in the number of commuters traveling the Glenn Highway has presented an additional demand on the department, she said. Then, of course, there are the occasional house fires, plane crashes and boating accidents.

The upswing in calls is driven by population growth in the area, McMichael said. The department often finds itself responding to calls at housing developments that weren’t there 10 or 20 years ago.

The volunteer fire and rescue crews come from nearly every demographic: college students, retirees, military members and Alaskans hoping to move on to careers with larger, paying departments.

Wilkins, who’s volunteered with the department for more than three years, said he signed up after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. Looking for something to do, he joined CVFRD at the urging of his neighbor. Serving his community is “extremely rewarding,” Wilkins said.

In Alaska — where approximately 90 percent of local fire departments are staffed by volunteers, according to data from the National Fire Department Registry — CVFRD is unique. There are no other organizations like it in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area, Wilkins said. Many new volunteers come seeking free training and valuable experience.

The work is demanding, from the emergency calls to the regularly scheduled training sessions. In 2016, the department’s approximately 100 responders volunteered more than 56,300 hours, McMichael said.

“The sad things is, a good portion of our community doesn’t even realize we’re volunteer, because there are so many of us and we’re always out there running around,” she said.

After more than two decades on the job, McMichael is still confident the volunteer department has the capacity to serve the Chugiak area – even during the day shifts when staffing is harder to find.

“We’re just busier,” she said.

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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