GVF&R’s 60th Anniversary
Part 1 – Former Fire Chief John Trautner
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
This article is the first of a five-part series featuring interviews about Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue during different parts of its 60-year history.
Fire Chief Joe Danish formed Girdwood Volunteer Fire Department (GVFD) in 1959. At the time, Girdwood had a mayor and city council concerned about fires in the community.
John Trautner was hired as resort manager by Chris von Imhoff in 1969. That Thanksgiving, Trautner had a chimney fire at his home that led to him becoming assistant chief shortly thereafter.
“That’s the first time I met the fire department and Joe Danish, and that’s how I got with the fire department. I had a chimney fire, and by the time they got here, I had used a couple of extinguishers to put it out, but at that time, they didn’t charge you anything. You were expected to make some kind of a donation, normally 24 bottles or cans in the case. That’s what you would give back to the volunteers in the department.”
Trautner recalls how volunteers were recruited to staff the department. “The draw for the fire department was the fact that we had a shower and water there,” he said. “A lot of the locals were living in dry cabins and became volunteer firemen.”
A 250-gallon water trailer with a pump was the department’s first piece of equipment, and a military surplus jeep was used to tow it to fires.
“There was no water system in Girdwood at the time,” Trautner said. “Any time we had to respond to a fire, we had to respond with that little 250-gallon trailer. It’s just a little two-wheel trailer.”
Initially, new members were introduced to the equipment to learn how to operate it.
“We might be operating the pumper truck one day,” Trautner said, “but somebody else comes in new, you’ve got to show him how to drive the truck, how to service it, and how to operate it. The pump is tough on it.”
Training was given on the job while responding to fires, and member retention was a recurring issue.
“One week we’d have 12 fire people, and the next week we’d have three,” Trautner said. “It fluctuated because the main employer at the time was Alyeska Resort. As people manning the resort went up and down, people participating in the fire program went up and down. With seasonal workers, they come to work and ski for a few weeks and all of the sudden a month later they decide to leave. The turnover was pretty high.”
Over the years, GVFD received additional handed-down equipment that was regularly maintained and operated well. Since Greater Anchorage Borough did not have its own department, training was through the Spenard Fire Department and the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD).
GVFD did not have EMS until 1974, and its first ambulance was a 1968 GMC hand-me-down. EMT training had quite a turnout for the first class, and as they trained, they moved up in the department. Trautner taught the initial first aid training class, and the number of members from it who went on to have AFD careers impresses him.
“Some of the people who went through that EMT training went on to become either temporary fire chief or fire chief,” Trautner said.
There were no major structure fires, loss of life or injuries during Trautner’s tenure, which ended in 1974. The majority of fires originated from heat tanks, which needed to be plugged in during winter, and would occasionally short out. Chimney and crawl space fires were also common.
Under Trautner, GVFD began rescues in Turnagain Arm. The department had access to an inflatable boat to train for water rescues, dry land training and going down to Turnagain Arm.
“If a car went into water,” Trautner said, “and a wrecker went after it, the fire department would respond if they tried to recover the car with somebody in it. There are certain things you have to do and train your people how to respond.”
Girdwood became part of the Municipality of Anchorage with unification in 1974. The merger combined the individual fire departments of Girdwood, Spenard and Anchorage into one. Trautner resigned in 1974 shortly after unification due to high turnover problems. He suggested paying members for training and fire calls as a solution to avoid the cycle of continuously training new members.
AFD denied the request to pay volunteers minimally for their work, even though Girdwood, not the municipality, was paying the tax for its fire department budget. Trautner’s resignation made the front page of the Anchorage Times, and the solution he proposed eventually became GVFD policy.
He is pleased with the legacy he left behind as part of GVFD’s development. “I’m proud to have been part of the department when it first started,” Trautner said. “I’m the one who was responsible for setting up the EMS program, and I think that has been very beneficial to the people of the state of Alaska, the city, and certainly to the community. We’re an example of what a community can do if you get the support.”
When asked about what he thought of GVF&R at 60 years, Trautner was candid in his assessment. “One of the concerns I have is that we’ve got so damn much fire equipment there,” he said. “We’ve got more equipment than cities of 100,000 people have in a lot of places. It costs money to maintain that. Things wear out. We’ve been fortunate to get a lot of the equipment handed down to us from the Municipality. We’ve got a department any community would be proud of.”