GVF&R Turns 60: Q&A with Current Members
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue (GVF&R) turns 60 years old in October, and it is different today than when it began.
“My understanding was the fire department started because they lured people in with the promise of showers and laundry and some payment because everybody lived in ski chalets without water,” said Fire Chief Michelle Weston.
To better understand GVF&R in 2019, the Gazette interviewed three current members to learn about their jobs and why they do them. Chief Weston was part of the dialogue. The interview is edited for clarity and length.
Sarah Howard (SH) joined GVF&R in Oct. 2013 and is a Firefighter/EMT. Nessa Cutler (NC) joined in Feb. 2018 and she is an Exterior Firefighter/EMT. Matt Martyn (MM) joined the department in April 2019 and is a Firefighter currently in EMT 1 class and a former Marine. Weston (CMW) started in 1996 and became Fire Chief in May 2018.
GCG: Why did you join GVF&R?
NC: My mom and stepdad are on the fire department, so I was around it a lot and it was really interesting. You do a lot of cool things, and I heard so many stories.
SH: When I grew up, my dad was in fire and EMS for over 30 years in Palmer. I grew up in old station 51. When I moved down here and got settled at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, I was looking for a way to get involved in the community with fire and EMS.
MM: I wanted to be a part of it for a while. I like the community service aspect of it. I’ve been ski patrol for the past seventeen years at Alyeska. We know a lot of the same people. We’ve had mutual stuff going on with the rescue work on the mountain where we’re interacting.
GCG: What did it take to achieve the title you have?
NC: Physical and mental endurance, maybe more [mental] than physical. Most of the training we did outdoors was at the AFD [Anchorage Fire Department] Training Center. It was just ice, cold, hot and hard work. It was so much fun.
SH: It took a lot of commitment and dedication. It takes a certain type of attitude and personality. GVF&R is a volunteer, paid on-call department, so it’s not like everybody does this job full time. People volunteer in the evenings to cover those shifts. You have to have that dedication to be a part of the team and come in to meet the common goal of helping people.
MM: I had to go through the firefighter academy at the department. We had to run through a whole bunch of check-offs and requirements in a few months of training. You have to familiarize yourself with a bunch of things in the station and show senior members you know it.
GCG: What does it take to succeed with GVF&R?
NC: Time put into studying the rigs, knowing your inventory because you’re doing everything here. You do backcountry, medical, fire, vehicle fire, extrication – everything. You have to put in your time knowing your stuff is how you’re successful here.
GCG: What are some of the challenges of the job?
NC: Time management and balancing it all. A lot of people here are in school. I’m in nursing school right now and putting in my hours here keeping up to date.
SH: Obviously some of those tough calls you sometimes carry with you over the years. That’s a given with this career field. Finding a work/life balance is hard when you have a normal career. When you come here after work, it’s like a second job.
CMW: Sometimes people are coming off of awful calls in the middle of the night like car wrecks or fatalities, and then they have to go to work the next day where people haven’t had the same experience. You go to work having seen something horrific the night before and you’re going in while still processing what was seen.
MM: Concur work/life balance and manage two jobs. It’s something that’s enjoyable, and you feel a drive to continue to do more because there is always more to be done. It’s rewarding a lot of the time. It’s trying to resist the urge to be here too much. I have to pull myself away sometimes. I want to be here for ten or fifteen years, not ten or fifteen months.
CMW: That is the problem, and we talked about that when you started. It sucks you in. Suddenly you’re like, ‘I’ll just live here.’ It’s more fun being here than it is at home, maybe not for everybody.
GCG: What are the benefits of the job?
NC: I’ve met more cool and interesting people working here than I have in my entire life. You learn things you could never learn in any other field in the fire career.
SH: It’s the teamwork and camaraderie you get out of it and you want to work together to achieve common goals. It’s rewarding to be like, ‘Hey, I’ve never been on a run with you,’ but because we train the same, we got the job done successfully. I love being a part of this family. GVFD is a pretty awesome team to be a part of.
MM: Being able to help people when it really matters. You can really give back to individuals at a certain point in time.
GCG: What are some moments that stand out to you?
NC: Doing confined space is a moment of success because I had to get over it with a pack and mask on while going through a tube that has a stick in the middle and getting through that. There was a team around me that kept me going, so it was kind of magical.
Me and a first responder were the first ones to get our pediatric patient who last fell from the hand tram. That’s a moment that sticks out because it was one of the scariest moments.
SH: After my first fire, we had just talked about it. Everybody was like, ‘We’re going to be here for about four more hours. Let’s order some pizzas.’ We had a couple of slices of pizza and went right back to work. Having that kind of down time after my first big fire was a big ‘I can do this’ moment. I didn’t hurt myself or some member of my team.
Another was the first time I climbed a ladder. That’s part of firefighting. Climbing ladders was a big hurdle for me to get over.
MM: The humpback whale that was beached out here. I certainly didn’t think I was going to wake that morning and be pouring out a five-gallon bucket on a humpback whale to try to keep it moist. It shows the diversity of calls you can get here.
The Whittier [Delong Dock] fire and being out there, having been with the department for a couple of months, and there we are pouring water on bigger blazes than we’ve dealt with along here. Everybody was rolling out of the tunnel and seeing a ceiling of black because all of the smoke went up into the entire valley in the middle of summer and turned dark. The third moment I recall was over by the hand tram, getting that individual up and out of there. We were getting blasted with prop wash while the PJs [pararescuemen] were getting lowered in on the cable to the hand tram terminal and hooking that up. It’s to be out there in that exhilarating a situation at the same time you’re making a real difference for somebody who really needs it at the time.
GVF&R needs members, especially from Girdwood. Go to girdwoodfire.com for details.
GVF&R 60th Anniversary
11:30 a.m. – Helmet Ceremony and annual photo, potluck for existing and previous members, family and friends at the fire hall
2 p.m. – Alumni Event, Girdwood Brewing Company, a specially brewed American pale ale debuts and GBC will donate $1 for every beer sold to GVF&R, Blue Ristra food truck will be on site.