GVF&R’s 60th Anniversary
Part 3 – Chief Michelle Weston
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
This article is the third of a five-part series featuring interviews about Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue (GVF&R) during parts of its 60-year history.
From an early age, GVF&R Chief Michelle Weston dreamed of becoming a firefighter, and a move to Girdwood inadvertently allowed her to realize her ambition.
“As a child, I used to watch Emergency on tv, and I loved it. I wanted to be a fireman or a paramedic when I grew up.”
However, Weston’s parents insisted she go to university instead of pursuing her dream. After earning a Masters degree in forestry from Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, she moved to Girdwood in August 1996. She met then Chief Michael Tumey, who made her an offer to join the fire department.
“He was a super fabulous guy who was welcoming and said, ‘Come on down,’” Weston said, “It was at a time the department had recently lost a lot of members, so I would say there were 9 to 12 people here.”
Weston joined GVF&R with no training and was gradually taught to be a firefighter through firsthand experience. Fire service is much more regulated today than it was over 20 years ago. After a couple of weeks with the department, Weston was shown how to drive and operate the FWD Tender, an old style of water truck that she had no prior experience with. After driving it around the school a couple of times, her training was complete.
Weston took EMT 1 training when the opportunity arose. The second call she went on was after a 4-Runner went off of the Seward Highway, overturned and submerged in Turnagain Arm with a two-year old boy strapped into a child seat in the vehicle’s back seat.
“The next day in the morning,” Weston said, “we were able to get ahold of the car and tow it out from under water. [Alaska State] Trooper Mike Opalka and I carried the two-year old back into the fire station until we could get the [medical examiner] to come down. That was a pretty emotional second call to be dealing with the death of a child. It’s iconic to me because it was the first dead person I had seen. When I talk about him, I can see him vividly in his car seat with his shoes.”
Weston explained what she enjoyed about her first run with GVF&R saying, “I like helping people. I like the teamwork. I’ve always liked team sports. There’s a team sports aspect to the fire service. It’s nice to give back to somebody when they’re having a bad day. We don’t do a lot of fires anymore. Twenty years ago, we had a lot more fires in Girdwood. Those are very exciting if you’re an adrenaline rush kind of person.”
In 2001, Weston accepted a position with the Municipality’s Wildfire Mitigation program and then went to Anchorage Fire Department to become chief of the administrative side. Weston was hired as GVF&R’s chief in May 2018. She did not apply for the position after former Chief Bill Chadwick retired because it did not have health insurance at the time.
The next time the position opened there was health insurance, so she applied. When she began, the fire hall was in the process of finishing remodeling and the equipment was not moved back in yet. The department was waiting for a certificate of occupancy, and it took about six months to create storage space and move gear and files back into the fire hall.
According to Weston, staffing GVF&R is always a challenge. She said there is a real need for Girdwood firefighters. The department has 53 people now, but firefighters who live in Anchorage cannot respond unless they are already at the fire hall. GVF&R needs people from the community because they can respond quickly when a fire happens.
When Weston first started over 20 years ago, there were not as many requirements to join the department. Today, some potential candidates are discouraged by too much structure with regulations and trainings. Weston said retention becomes a challenge when members are focused on a career path with AFD or in the medical profession. Another issue is people who would normally volunteer cannot afford to live here due to the high cost of housing.
A number of GVF&R members are joining AFD in January, and Weston would like to see them replaced by Girdwood residents. Recruitment begins in February, and there is an open house about recruitment on December 11 that will explain what candidates need to join the department.
GVF&R recently gained five EMT 1s after they passed their class, and there are five members in EMT 2 class. When the classes are offered, they are joined by members of other departments such as Hope, Homer and Cooper Landing, which is a recent development.