Meet the New Fire Chief
Weston An Old Friend in a New Role
“I believe in raising people up, providing the right tools and training. They’re going to do a good job.
– Fire Chief Michelle Weston
By P.M. Fadden
Fire station 41, located off Egloff Drive in Girdwood, welcomed the recent appointment of a new chief. Twenty-two year Girdwood resident Michelle Weston, a veteran of public service both abroad and domestically, took command as the department’s Fire Chief last month.
Receiving an approximate 450 calls annually, and on the eve of celebrating a 60-year anniversary, non-profit organization Girdwood Fire and Rescue Inc. [GFR] is contracted under Municipality of Anchorage and charged with provision of fire, rescue and EMS aid throughout Girdwood Valley Service Area and Turnagain Arm Communities.
Weston, an Alaska resident since 1992 and GFR volunteer beginning in 1996, emphasizes supportive leadership, coaching and community outreach as keys to success in her new department role.
As GFR Chief, she evinces mindfulness for the past, awareness for the future and gratitude at what she describes to be a feeling of coming home.
GCG: When exactly did you step into GVF&R chief role?
Weston: After an initial application and interview process, I received official appointment May 5th. Now begins a three-month probation period. If anything, what has surprised me so far is scope. I’m seeing my third generation of GFR station house, and everything, facilities, equipment, even the job itself have grown bigger.
GCG: Why did you want the role?
Weston: My history in the Girdwood community gave me a foundation. I did have a fabulous job prior to coming here, but I wanted to give back. So even though I’ve been away, I really haven’t. I love the fire service, being here and providing for people. To come back; all the equipment, putting my turnouts on, all of it; it felt like coming home.
GCG: What began your interest for public service work?
Weston: Watching a late 70’s paramedics and firefighter TV show called ‘Emergency.’ By the time I finished high school, I wanted to be paramedic. Flash forward to my time at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I still had an interest in medical training, so I decide to pursue an emergency trauma technician certification–an undertaking that introduced me to individuals I still work with some twenty years later.
Fire Departments work as a team to help someone on their worst day. I enjoy that teamwork aspect, going to a call, working really hard, coming home safe and then moving on to the next task.
A sentiment I’ve heard before is, when you come to the Fire Service, you find your brothers and sisters. It’s a network, a team, and you form lasting friends.
GCG: Where have you worked prior to this chief role?
Weston: Previously I worked with fire departments around Vancouver in Emergency Operation and Planning in Canada. I was Public Safety Section Manager working for North Vancouver district, which had won a United Nations award for disaster reduction. There, projects included earthquake preparedness, debris flow or landslide management and contracting issues related Royal Canadian Mounted Police; specifically, looking into alternatives to existing contracting and how to combine two different police departments.
More recently, I’ve experienced Crisis as well as Media Communication roles with Alaska Native Tribal Health Center, Assistant City Manager at Seward, Heritage Land Bank Management Officer, Logistics Chief for Emergency Operations in Anchorage as well as Administrative Deputy Chief with the Anchorage Fire Department, running support service functions and data systems–there was even a three-month contract when I acted as interim Harbor Master at Whittier.
Additionally, my experience includes training as a K9 handler, membership to Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team and wildfire response. In 2014 I was Lead Information Officer for the Funny River Fire on Kenai Peninsula and have deployed to fires in Georgia, Montana, Washington and Idaho.
Here in Girdwood, I’ve worked the Alyeska Ski Patrol aid room, was a past Chair of the Girdwood Public Safety Advisory Committee and occasionally DJ the radio show Trailer Tunes on KEUL 88.9 FM, Glacier City Radio.
GCG: With such an extensive background, please describe your leadership style.
Weston: You can be handed a title, but not be a leader. A true leader is an individual people choose to follow.
I focus on strength, favoring coaching and mentorship, which is what I experienced under past chiefs and want to continue. I want to help my people move forward in their career, not as employees but as team members. I believe in raising people up. By doing that, and providing the right tools and training, they’re going to do a good job.
GCG: What are the department’s current primary action items?
Weston: A fire department’s primary mission denotes fire and emergency medical service. In addition, my present focuses are: write a strategic action plan, an in-depth look on capital improvement, increased numbers of Girdwood residents on GFR, renegotiation of municipality contract, awareness for support of our firefighters, update the department’s disaster plan, increased administrative flow and bring back community focus.
GCG: Regarding community, how do you plan to increase outreach?
Weston: We’ve already started. At present, GFR is actively involved with Forest Fair, which is a huge public draw. This year GFR will be opening an Instant Command Center specifically for Fair dates. And most recently, you may have noticed the department was visible publicly during Bike to Work day. Also, we’re increasing the department’s social media presence via daily postings on training or safety issues of the day.
Moving forward, I’d like to see GFR doing more with schools and as a presence at all community events.
GCG: What are the challenges facing GFR?
Weston: One challenge is building community focus and getting residents to volunteer. Without that, incident scenarios involving cut-off by weather, natural disaster or odd hour accidents place us with minimal personnel to respond. In the past, personnel ratio was: 90 percent Girdwood residents and a few Anchorage people. Currently, that ratio is 70 percent Anchorage people and 30 percent Girdwood people.
Also, GFR will challenge itself to welcoming back previous members into the Fire Station. This is still the people’s station, and we want to bring the heart of Girdwood to it.
GCG: What are the department’s greatest strengths in meeting those challenges?
Weston: We’ve got fabulous operations under Deputy Chief, Manch Garhart; the operations facet is the best it’s ever been, also our fifty members—up from twenty-three since January—and all of whom are incredibly enthusiastic. They’re a trained and motivated force with a high number of medics trained in Advanced Life Support, and all within a fabulous station with good equipment.
According to Weston GFR strengths, bolstered by inter-community support, will propel Station 41 toward achievement of its future goals.
While remaining contracted under Municipality of Anchorage and answerable to Anchorage Fire Department, GFR has advantage in Weston’s previously Anchorage-based role as oversight for such relationships. Now as Fire Chief for Girdwood Valley Service Area and Turnagain Arm communities, Weston benefits by familiarity with both sides of current and future dialog.
That bi-lateral view lends stability to overriding GFR outlook which, according to Weston, is to continue strengthening Station 41 as a Fire Department while encouraging community interaction and preparedness.
“We welcome anyone and everyone to visit your fire station,” Weston said. “Come on down, see us and hopefully you’ll agree. GFR is a life-changing experience—in a good way.”