By Morgan Smith
It is one of the most recognizable buildings in town, not just because of its size and bright red paint but because of what it represents. A lifeline when we need it, the Girdwood Fire Department is here for us night and day, and they need our help.
I went down to talk to Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue (GVF&R) Fire Chief Michelle Weston to see how residents could lend a hand. She explained that recently there has been a steady decline in local volunteer firefighters, leaving them short staffed during local emergency responses. Chief Weston told me that the local residents that make up her staff dropped from 98 percent to 46.
For us locally, this shortage means less staff available to respond rapidly when they don’t live locally. So Weston started to ask around to learn the reasons why people aren’t volunteering. With excuses ranging from not wanting to shave facial hair off, to age, physical fitness or fear of lack of training, it seemed that people had the wrong idea about what it meant to be a volunteer firefighter.
As Chief Weston started to give me the grand tour, she broke it all down. No prior knowledge is needed to start volunteer firefighting for Girdwood residence. GVF&R trains everyone and pays for the training. That means you get a Fire Service class for free, a five thousand dollar value. You also get a CPR class, a two thousand dollar value, once again free and emergency medical training. With those and other training courses at your disposal, it can be a valuable stepping-stone into whatever you’d like to do next.
Weston has had several staff members move onto other fields like nursing because of the opportunity volunteer firefighting presented them. Weston is just looking for team players that are willing to get out and help. In fact, Chief Weston boasts a 30 percent female staff, one of the highest in the country. So ladies, don’t let your gender deter you from volunteering. The fire station is equipped with its own workout facility, so physical fitness should not be a deterrent either.
The time commitments of a volunteer firefighter are 48 hours a month, consisting of eight six-hour shifts, an unpaid three-month probation period, and four Tuesday training nights a month from 7-10 p.m. There are also new member orientations on Apr. 4 and 11 in the evening, and all day April 5-6, 11-12. For all your hard work and time, you get so many benefits as mentioned before. Members who pass their probationary period receive 11 dollars an hour for responding to incidents and mandatory training. And best of all, you get to serve your community.
As we walk through those freshly refurbished halls, I take in the world that these firefighters live in. The facility is immaculate. Giant shiny red fire engines, and all the toys that you could ever want to use fill their parking garages. Stepping up into the fire engine, you can feel the importance of their job. The equipment was perfectly fitted in place, and everything was ready to go at a moments notice.
Chief Weston explains that 70 percent of what they do is medical. So the proper equipment being on hand is literally a matter of life or death. She explained how special the feeling is to rush out and save a life, then come home and cook dinner. To do such an important thing and then just come back to normal life duties gives you a sense of participating in something bigger than yourself, and it really resonates throughout the rest of your day.
As we walk through the living quarters, I was shocked by the quality of space and comfort. Each room fitted with everything you’d need to sleep, and with access to showers and laundry facilities, it makes you feel right at home. I was impressed.
The next room we came to was the giant open air kitchen. Fit for cooking for large groups, this kitchen has everything you could want. Chief Weston explained the importance of getting together for a meal. So some nights when they train, they try and have a dinner beforehand just to sit with one another.
You can tell how important the sense of community is with her staff and this job. They can’t do it without one another and that sense of being a unit is apparent as the staff members interact with one another. GVF&R is a wonderful group of people and such an important part of our community. Thank you for all that you do.