Chugiak’s first full-time paid fire chief started out as a volunteer
Tim Benningfield has never quite been able to get Alaska out of his blood.
First exposed to the state in 1989 while working as an Army medic at Fort Richardson, Benningfield returned to Alaska in 2012 after a 20-year career as a firefighter in his native Kentucky. After spending five years as a fire and emergency professor at UAA, Benningfield and his wife, Debby, returned to the Lower-48 in 2016.
But something didn’t feel right.
“We knew this was where we were supposed to be,” Benningfield said during a Monday, Oct. 23 interview at Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Station 35 in Eagle River.
So Benningfield decided to throw his helmet into the ring for the newly created paid chief’s position at CVFRD, a previously all-volunteer department whose growth in recent years necessitated the creation of the paid position. The job seemed a natural fit for Benningfield, who worked as a CVFRD volunteer while stationed at Ft. Rich.
“I quickly made an acquaintance with folks out here in Chugiak back then,” he said.
He got the job, and on Aug. 1 — after driving the notorious Alaska-Canada Highway — Benningfield started work as the department’s first paid chief, beating out a pool of more than 80 applicants from across the country.
“We’ve driven that thing seven times now,” Benningfield said with a laugh.
While working as Program Coordinator of Fire and Emergency Services at UAA, Benningfield strengthened ties with the CVFRD by sending promising students out to Chugiak to gain experience. Today, several of those students remain on the department’s active roster.
“I still probably have half a dozen or more students from the university who are volunteering now,” he said.
Founded in 1952, the CVFRD has been planning to transition to a paid chief for several years. Benningfield said call volumes continue to rise in the area, with more than 1,000 expected in 2017 — a likely record. He said the transition has been easy thanks to the support of his assistants, Virginia McMichael and Clifton Dalton.
“This department has grown, this community has grown and the luxury I got to step into was the fact this wasn’t something that was brand new to them, they’ve been working on this transition for five years,” he said.
Benningfield said McMichael and Dalton have provided him with a wealth of knowledge and expertise on running the department.
“The easiest thing for me has been the two people I have as assistants have been here long term,” he said. “Both of them have the historical perspective as well as the vision going forward, and they’ve been very involved in not only grooming the department for the department, but grooming the department for the transition.”
Benningfield said the department was in great shape when he arrived, and he doesn’t plan any major changes. His top priorities, he said, will be to beef up training and to continue recruiting new members. Currently, CVFRD has about 100 members on its roster, with about 75 of those actively responding to calls. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds ranging from young aspiring firefighters and EMT’s trying to get experience to folks who simply want to help their community. Finding the right training opportunities for everyone will be a priority, Benningfield said.
“Being able to identify that and help them meet their goals is important,” he said.
Benningfield said he’s looking forward to reaching out to the community (he’s a regular attendee at community council meetings) and becoming an even bigger part of Chugiak-Eagle River.
“I think it’s very important for all of these communities in the area — Birchwood, Chugiak, Eklutna — that this is their department, and I’m here because of them,” said Benningfield, who lives in Peters Creek. “This is the community’s fire service and I want to be that face for them.”
With decades of Alaska connections to fall back on, Benningfield said he’s sure he’s found a welcoming home in Chugiak.
“I love it.”
Contact Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]