His superiors tricked him into attending a political function. Central Emergency Services engineer Josh Thompson stepped on stage with little preparation.
Thompson said Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, approached him upon arriving at the function. The two men shook hands, and the senator asked if Thompson preferred being called up to accept the award.
“I was totally confused,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Thompson bested others across the state this year earning the title of 2011 firefighter of the year. State officials likely chose the Soldotna resident based on his on-duty work ethic and off-duty side projects.
Originally from Seattle, Wash., Thompson was 12 years old when he moved to Soldotna. During high school, his interest in academics waned; he was uncertain about his future. At 15, however, he was introduced to Gary Hale, the current fire marshal of CES. Hale helped Thompson set his sights toward a career in public safety.
At that time, the community just started an Explorer Post, a youth group program in which students — generally 14 to 18 years old — learn the basics of firefighting using actual equipment. The program is sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America, which offers “exploring” in other career fields.
“I fell in love with it from there, and I kept with it,” Thompson said.
He obtained a firefighting license at 18 and worked as a volunteer responder. He became a fulltime employee seven years ago. Working his way up the command chain, Thompson now serves as an engineer and an emergency medical technician III at CES Stations 1 and 3, located in Soldotna and Sterling, respectively.
For those seeking a full career as a CES employee, the career path goes firefighter, engineer and chief. Engineers drive fire engines and pump water to tankers. EMTs conduct on-scene medical help. All CES employees are certified medical technicians or paramedics.
The training never ends, Thompson said, as the workday afternoons consist of fire training and emergency medical training. But nights can be boring.
During evenings on the job, firefighters self-train, or just relax. Thompson said he often thinks of potential projects, and coworkers help out, too.
“My shift guys step in to help out, because the projects end up being larger than I can handle,” he said. “It keeps us all busy.”
Thompson is involved with Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids, an organization working to prevent unintentional childhood injuries. His project with Safe Kids centers on car seat safety. He also speaks with high school students about drunk driving around prom. He enjoys working with young kids, he said.
“Anything to do with the younger kids and safety is pretty fun,” Thompson said. “I’ve got kids of my own — three (kids) all under 5 — so I can interact with them pretty well.”
CES Fire Chief Chris Mokracek said Thompson’s efforts extend far beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Those efforts have granted Thompson two awards — he also won the department’s firefighter of the year award.
“He does have a passion for getting the word out, a passion for safety-conscious thinking” Mokracek said.
It’s important to recognize departmental successes yearly, as all the employees help save lives, Mokracek added.
A wooden sign hangs on an interior banister at Station 1. Its red, block letters read, “Fire fighter of the year Rusty Grilley 1991 Alaska.” Sitting on Mokracek’s desk is a dark wood plaque, listing department members of the year since 2001.
Thompson feels the same way. He said he felt honored to receive the award, but his coworkers deserve the recognition.
His coworkers are family. After all, firefighters spend a third of their lives at work, not counting overtime, he said.
“I wish all the other guys could’ve been awarded, because they’re just as much a part of it as I am” Thompson said. “We’re family, and we do everything together.”
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.