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When I found out I was going to Alaska to teach a class for the National Fire Academy (NFA), I was excited, but having never been there before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The more I thought about it, in addition to all of the tourist things, this would be a great opportunity to see what the fire service is like in Alaska, and more specifically hazardous materials response. What kinds of equipment do they have? For a moment, I even pictured in my mind a dogsled with red lights and a siren with firefighters in Level A suits mushing them on! (One thing for sure, I knew I wanted to see a moose.)
Photos by Robert Burke
The Anchorage Fire Department’s Haz-Mat One, labeled “The Pride of Alaska,” carries a wide assortment of hazmat response tools, equipment and supplies, including specialized gear to protect personnel from the elements. The hazmat unit responds anywhere in Alaska that it is needed.
What did I know about Alaska? It’s far away from my home in Maryland, and it’s cold, with lots of snow and ice, and a lot of night in the winter and a lot of sun in the summer. But I really wondered how they did things in the fire service in Alaska. At temperatures as low as –40 degrees Fahrenheit, water must freeze pretty fast. What about decontamination at hazmat incidents? How do they do decontamination at temperatures that low? With all of these questions in mind, I contacted the Anchorage Fire Department and made arrangements to visit them when I arrived in Alaska.
The plane trip from Maryland to Anchorage was long. I went through three laptop computer batteries, several naps, and a couple of meals in addition to stops in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City (there is a four-hour difference in time from Maryland). Finally, we started our descent into Anchorage. The snow-covered mountains were breathtaking; in fact, the scenery was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. When I reached the airport terminal, I obtained my rental car and started my adventure to find the main fire station in Anchorage. However, before I even got off the airport property, I went around a curve and encountered a large moose with a full set of antlers “clopping” down the side of the road next to my car. (I hadn’t been in Alaska for 30 minutes and I’d already seen my first moose!)
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, covering 1,961 square miles with approximately 260,000 residents. It is located at the northeast end of Cook Inlet, with water on the northwest and southwest sides, and the Chugach Mountains to the east. While the climate in Alaska can be very harsh in the winter, I found that the weather in Anchorage is rather mild compared to other locations in the state. Temperatures reach from an average of 8 degrees to 21 degrees for highs and lows in January and 51 degrees to 65 degrees in July. Periods of daylight range from 51¼2 hours at the winter solstice in December to 191¼2 hours at the summer solstice in June. Some locations in Alaska get 303 inches of snow each year (25 feet), while Anchorage averages about 70 inches.
When I arrived at the main fire station in downtown Anchorage, I found a modern facility with drive- through bays and some impressive apparatus (no dogsleds!). I noticed colored lights in the ceiling of the station and inquired about their purpose. I was told that it was part of the dispatch system designed to shorten response time. Even before they gather all necessary information from the caller and the radio dispatch is made, dispatchers turn on the appropriate ceiling light in the station indicating which apparatus will be responding. This allows firefighters to start dressing and getting on apparatus immediately, reducing response time when the actual radio dispatch occurs.
The Anchorage Fire Department operates out of 12 stations with a 13th under construction and due to open in December 2004. About 90 firefighters are on duty each shift and a total of 360 personnel on the department. Personnel work 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off duty, and have four days off after every third shift.