I have been a federal employee since 1991 beginning with the Payette National Forest (Forest Service) in McCall, Idaho. In 2005, I moved to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Baker City, Oregon. In February 2011, I changed agencies by taking a position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here in Soldotna. Throughout my career with the federal government, I have been the mailroom clerk, front desk receptionist, environmental education coordinator, recycling coordinator, and fire suppression support coordinator. In my role as a customer service provider, I have issued senior passes, firewood permits, Christmas tree tags, and maps. I have created and set-up displays for county fairs, participated with Smokey Bear in parades, and served as the public contact for events such as the 2003 Capitol Holiday Tree when it toured northern Idaho before going to Washington, D.C.
I have had the good fortune to complete "details." This is when employees can go work at another location for a temporary duty to cross train. I spent three months working for the Bureau of Land Management/Boise National Forest Visitor Center in Boise, Idaho and 2 months for the Glacier Ranger District of Chugach National Forest in Girdwood, as well as a few shorter details with others.
I have attended the funerals of co-workers killed in the line of duty.
I have given conservation education presentations to students 5 years of age as well as to senior citizens. Once, at a fire camp while assisting the Public Affairs Officer, I got the opportunity to shake hands with our President of the United States while he was visiting the camp.
On the personal side, I have traveled to France with my youngest son, been to Hawaii with the other son, got remarried after 20 years of being divorced and, when I turned 50, I even got a tattoo (and, yes, it hurt!). I have had many, many wonderful blessings and opportunities.
However, all of this just didn't prepare me for training since being with Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency puts a lot of emphasis on safety in the workplace, so a prerequisite to flying in a float-plane is Dunker Training. We spent a few hours completing classroom work and then moved to the pool at Nikiski. In the pool, students learned and practiced making rafts with each other, creating a caterpillar of swimmers, how and when to inflate your personal float device, how to upright a raft, pulling people into the raft, all while drilling in the seven steps of keeping alive. The first step is declaring "I am a survivor!", getting and keeping yourself in a positive mind set is your best defense for any life or death situation.
Eventually, you get into this makeshift cage of PVC pipes and straps. The instructors and your fellow classmates gently tip the cage from the edge of the pool into the water. The occupant proceeds to remember all that has been learned that day and escapes the cage. Every student is required to complete three successful (by doing each of the seven steps) "dunks."
Except it is never that simple. Sometimes, you forget to unlatch your seatbelt. Or you might lose the reference point that tells you which way to move when you're upside down, underwater, and perhaps in the dark. Or maybe the spotters spin the cage a few times, or "washing machine" it, to simulate rough seas.
My fear of water made my heart pound loudly in my chest. I just knew I couldn't do it. I had participated all day with struggles, but I finally needed to concede defeat. As the instructors prepped us about the cage, they said if you have any hesitation, you should go first rather than be one of the last. With calmness in my voice, I declared that not only was I hesitating but I was going to pass on doing this last activity of the day.
After coaxing from the instructors and moral support from fellow "dunkers," I agreed to try, just once. Into the cage I went and they gently lowered me into the water. With the surprise of no panic, I successfully completed each step and exited correctly! Then they made me do it twice more and from the edge of the pool. Now granted they didn't flip me upside down or spin me around like they did to so many of the others, but I successfully "dunked" three times. As terrifying as the day had been, I was liberated in facing a fear. And, yes, since then I have gotten to go fly over this incredible place where I work, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
As an administrative technician as the Refuge, I issue permits to outfitters and guides, black bear baiters, and subsistence hunters. You'll often find me at the front desk so please stop in and visit.
Renee Heeren is an Administrative Technician (Permits) at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.