Meet the newest friendly neighborhood firefighters: Becca Satathite, Holly Behrens, Luke Michael and Gunnar Romatz all rose from volunteers to full-time employees together and are on the job after their first probationary year with Central Emergency Services.
In a celebration on May 22, the four were officially welcomed into the CES ranks. Their path to the fire and emergency medical services organization was made possible in part by a large, renewed push to recruit people to the CES volunteer program in early 2015, said CES Chief Roy Browning.
All four staffers came in through the volunteer program, and all four went through the paramedic technology program at Kenai Peninsula College. Romatz and Michael both went on to be live-in volunteers in CES stations through a part of the volunteer program that can sometimes be challenging to attract people to, Browining said.
Under a slightly unusual circumstance of several retirements lining up at once, CES was able to later hire all four on as employees at the same time. Usually new hires come in one or two at a time, Browning said.
“It’s kind of uncanny,” Romatz said. “Becca and Luke went through paramedic school together. Holly and I went through paramedic school together. … So we’ve all kind of known each other.”
Satathite said getting to stay together through volunteering, the program at KPC and the probationary year helped the group form a kind of unity. They’ve been able to look out for each other on their journey to full-time members of CES, she said.
“I consider myself very lucky that I got to go through with three other people,” Behrens said. “There are a lot of people that get hired either one at a time or two at a time, so I think we kind of leaned on each other in that regard.”
The group spent a year being evaluated through a probationary period, after a 6-8 week orientation with the department’s training officer, Browning said. They all had to pass certain benchmark tests along the way.
“Every three months we rotate them so they’re with a different crew and a different captain, so they’re completely evaluated throughout that year,” Browning said.
Each of the new hires faced challenges and surprises along the way. For Behrens, the schedule consisting of 24-hour shifts was difficult to get used to coming straight from a 9-to-5 job. Michael, on the other hand, said he had a good idea of how things were going to go, having completed an internship in Texas.
“Probation can be tough, kind of strenuous,” Behrens said. “I think with all of us, we came in with not a lot of experience, so we were kind of new in a lot of regards. … So that was an interesting transition from being right out of paramedic school to, you know, being field medics and firemen.”
Romatz said, in the moment, the year seemed to go on forever.
“The experience was every bit as challenging as they said it was going to be, and they were completely right with how rewarding it was going to feel at the end, and it continues to feel every day,” he said. “This is the best job in the world, and it’s a blessing and honor to be able to — I’d never thought about it this way, but to serve this community.”
Satathite said the on-the-job training that came with the probationary year taught her things she couldn’t have learned in three years of schooling. She also commented on how young she and each of the new hires are, and how early they are getting their careers started with CES.
“It’s pretty crazy, like growing up in the back yard and then all of a sudden one day we’re adults in this small community, and we are working for the community,” Satathite said. “We’re actually a big, huge part of the community making a difference.”
‘It was addicting’
The new hires gave various reasons for wanting to get involved in fire and EMS in the first place.
Michael said he jumped into the volunteer program because he knew it would serve as a good foot in the door for his goal of becoming a career firefighter. He discovered the emergency response career when he was just graduating from high school, he said.
“I took some training with (the Alaska Division of) Forestry and decided that emergency stuff sounded kind of fun,” Michael said. “That’s where I discovered paramedic stuff.”
“I kind of did it by accident,” Behrens said. “I actually was … kind of attempting to get my bachelor’s degree at the University of North Dakota. I was a hockey player and got a scholarship to go there. Life kind of happened and I came back after 2 1/2 years and literally opened up the KPC catalog and put my finger on the EMT 1 course, and it really just kind of took off from there.”
Romatz and Satathite were both originally interested in medicine and gravitated toward emergency medical services.
“I always loved helping people,” Romatz said.
Satathite, who took a Certified Nursing Assistant course and realized it wasn’t for her, was coaxed instead into an emergency medical technician course by her brother, who works for the Kenai Fire Department.
“I wanted a job that wasn’t a desk job,” she said. “I wanted a job that was going to be different every day, a job that, in a healthy form … can be like a hobby ‘cause you enjoy it so much.”
Both Romatz and Satathite spoke about their discovery of fighting fires when they were introduced to the other side of the work required of a first responder. Working for CES and similar smaller departments means being both a medic and a firefighter.
“It was addicting,” Romatz said. “It was that hint of addiction to not only helping people but just being able to do what we do.”
“I think the thrill is the addicting part,” Satathite said. “It’s just unpredictable … it has a lot of variances to it, and that’s what’s great.”
All four new employees were either born and raised in Soldotna or grew up there, and look forward to using their familiarity with the area to their advantage.
“Coming into probation, I knew the area a lot better than somebody who they might have hired from down south,” Michael said. “So the learning curve in that aspect was much shorter.”
Romatz said being a first responder in a small community can change the way old family friends or acquaintances see him and his coworkers.
“Obviously one of the cons is you’re always scared you’ll go out on a call and it’s someone know or love, or a family member, a friend,” Romatz said. “But it’s cool to also see — if it’s someone you know, like a close friend or a family member — and they just see you in this kind of way, and most of the time it’s just very natural and they just look at you and say, ‘Hey!’”
Satathite said their knowledge of the area gives them a leg up, such as knowing which roads get especially bad in the winter or which to avoid after a big rain event.
“A year ago … we felt like little kids coming out of high school, and we go out into the streets and we’re in our uniform(s), and we are grown adults to people,” she said. “It’s just crazy to see us develop like that, especially when it’s people we know. I think it gives us an advantage in a sense.”
As an incoming group of firefighters, Browning said the new staffers have done very well.
“Not everybody makes it through the probationary period,” he said. “… We’re excited about bringing them on board.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org