After 25 years, Kenai fire captain still burns for the job

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

You might go for years without them, and you hope to avoid them. But if you get in big trouble, you pray they will show up fast.

They are the men and women who make up emergency response squads.

Since Sept. 11, people are paying more attention to those often-unsung heroes who get up in the middle of the night in subzero weather to help others. Sometimes that means facing gut-wrenching scenarios or putting themselves at risk to spare strangers from the consequences of their own poor judgment.

The Kenai Peninsula has scores of emergency responders, and in 2001 they were called out more than 4,000 times. They range from neighbors who volunteer a few hours to highly trained specialists who make it a career.

One such responder is Walt Williamson, who just celebrated his silver anniversary with the Kenai Fire Department.

"I've noticed an increased awareness of our job, which is a good thing," he said.

"It has kind of brought our job to the forefront as a firefighter and how hazardous it is."

A generation of change

On April 25, fire hall colleagues feted Williamson with a steak lunch to celebrate his 25 years with the department. One gave him a card that read, "You've been here longer than I've been alive."

Despite his seniority, Williamson is a youthful 46.

He started as a relative youngster, and readily admits that the way he got hired back in 1977 would never fly today. And that is just one of many profound changes to emergency services he's witnessed.

"I've seen everything in here get replaced, and I've seen everybody get replaced. It's a whole new group of people since I started," he said.

His boss, Chief Scott Walden, agreed.

"He has seen a tremendous amount of changes," Walden said. "He's done a great job."

The emphasis also has broadened from responding to emergencies to working to prevent them.

The public still focuses on losses when, for example, a building burns down. But response organizations, including the Kenai Fire Department, now track how much they save, too. Last year, Walden reported, fire threatened almost $3 million worth of property in Kenai, but responders were able to keep the damage below half a million dollars.

The effective response capability even helps those without problems by means of lower insurance rates.

Saving someone or something is a good feeling, Williamson said.

"My last fire was on Peninsula Street. The upper right apartment was pretty well engulfed, and we were able to stop it before it got to the other three."

People here are safer than they used to be, and the calls per capita are going down even as the population has increased, he said.

Drunk driving, although still a major generator of ambulance calls, has declined. He attributed the change to more stringent police enforcement.

"The last two wrecks I worked were alcohol related. ...," he said. "They haven't eliminated the problem, but I just see a difference there.

"... The four-lane highway makes the road safer, too -- and traffic lights."

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are getting better and have made a big difference. His department has responded to monoxide alarms and found dangerously malfunctioning furnaces.

Education is one of the most powerful safety tools. Emergency responders invest time in reaching out to the public, especially school children. They talk to classes about safety and response basics such as exit drills at home, dialing 911 and "stop, drop and roll." Walden said Williamson helped set up such programs in Kenai.

When people still have problems, advancing technology gives responders better equipment.

"When I started, there was a Cadillac ambulance, a white station wagon kind," Williamson said.

The new ambulances have more room and more advanced tools, giving medics things unheard of in the past such as advanced life support and defibrillators.

Other changes in emergency response have less public visibility.

One is the incident command system, or ICS.

"It helps manage resources in a more effective manner than in the old days, when one person was in change and trying to manage everything," he said.

The ICS management approach gives responders specific and manageable tasks in a crisis, while remaining flexible. In Kenai, the large drills the department does at the airport every second year have highlighted how smoothly ICS works, he said.

Another change is the entry of women into the career, although Kenai has not yet had a woman responder on staff.

Emergency services will continue to evolve, locally and worldwide, he predicted.

His department will move trucks to the new Kenai Municipal Airport Operations Complex this summer.


Kenai Fire Department Capt. Walt Williamson works on a computer at the station.

Photo by Matthew Gravelle

Looking at the broader perspective, Williamson predicted defibrillators will be the next big thing in more and more public places. The machines, which administer shocks to restart hearts, are an effective, easy-to-use way to save lives in cases of sudden heart attacks. The Red Cross and American Heart Association are adding how to use them to the routine curriculum for classes in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"That is what they are discovering now saves people: early defibrillation," he said.

"(Defibrillators) are showing up everywhere. ... It is just so important to get the electrodes on these people first, plus calling 911."

Changing demands

All the new equipment and sophisticated procedures require more training.

Training is perhaps the biggest change and biggest challenge in how emergency responders do their work. The training demands have mushroomed, requiring more time and brain power commitment.

"The training is enormous," Williamson said. "It is mind-boggling, actually."

When the department first put him on the payroll, he had been a volunteer for two months and was learning the basics from working alongside more experienced personnel.

"We just met every Sunday back then and did some form of training," he said.

Now, a prospective employee needs to pass written and skills tests for emergency medical technician and firefighter certification to get their resume past the first cut. The trend is to ask for more credentials, with departments now looking for advanced skills such as paramedics.

"We didn't have EMTs when I started," Williamson said.

More training requirements put pressure on the volunteers who traditionally made up the bulk of rural departments. The classes are expensive to put on and too much for most people with jobs or families. The result is more pressure for departments to shift to permanent, paid staff.

The peninsula has the full spectrum, from all-volunteer organizations like Funny River to Kenai, which stopped using volunteers soon after it hired Williamson. Others, such as Central Emergency Services based in Soldotna, use volunteers to aid a core team of paid responders.

Williamson watched that change in Kenai.

"(Training volunteers) gets very expensive. So the city decided to go paid -- thank goodness."

More than a job

The work is anything but a 9-to-5 routine.

Williamson and his colleagues at Kenai work 24-hour shifts beginning at 8 a.m. The current schedule has each team work 24 on, 24 off for six days, followed by a three-day break. While on shift, "home" is a dorm room with rows of beds and lockers, a staff kitchen and the lounge, sparsely furnished with a television, an upholstered living room set and, on the walls, collages of photos from past calls.

The set-up fosters teamwork, and Williamson praised his colleagues.

"They are very high caliber. They are very bright -- and strong," he said.

Then he added with a chuckle, "Not that they were dumb and weak in the old days. But we have a fine crowd of guys here."

Unlike the old stereotype of firemen sitting around in their suspenders playing cards waiting for the bell to clang, modern responders have plenty to keep them busy between calls.

They keep equipment ready to roll at a moment's notice, meaning that after each run they fill the gas tanks, put battery devices in chargers, refill air packs, restock ambulance supplies and drain and dry hoses by hanging them over scaffolding.

Preparedness also means keeping engines in prime maintenance condition, testing hoses for potential leaks and keeping an inventory of all the ambulance medications so none of them expire.

In addition, crews keep meticulous records and review their runs internally and, for medics, with their sponsoring physicians. And they train, train and train some more.

Emergency work, like so much else, has a seasonal rhythm on the peninsula, which is coming up on the grass fire season. Summer is a time for tourism action and outdoor mishaps. Autumn brings slick roads and moose at dusk. And then there are the challenges of an Alaska winter.

"When it gets below zero, I start thinking residential fires with wood stoves and malfunctioning heaters," Williamson said.

Even when he is off duty, his pager stays with him.

If the duty crew is busy, others are called in to staff the station. If too much happens, they can call for mutual aid from other central peninsula departments.

"That's one thing, we've always been fortunate to be located between Nikiski and CES," he said.

Everyone pitches in when needed.

"I had to come in about 12 times last month. That was mostly for station manning," he said.

Calls are unpredictable, but not every one is a crisis. A couple times a year Williamson gets called to get a cat out of a tree.

"I look at it as a training thing," he said. "I figure that cat is going to come down eventually."

A career with adrenalin

Williamson and his wife, Tina, live in North Kenai. He has four daughters, ranging in age from 13 to 24.

Tina said being the wife of a firefighter-EMT has its pros and cons.

Although she sometimes worries about dangerous calls, her husband is the most safety-conscious person she knows. And she loves his odd schedule, giving him blocks of time off even during the day.

"The pager is interesting at night," she said. "I guess I've gotten used to it."

Williamson came to the peninsula in 1976 from Louisiana, and his speech retains a trace of the south. He worked for an oil-field service company. Anticipating starting a family, he took a class on baby safety and unexpectedly found himself hooked.

He signed on as a volunteer at Kenai and soon the department offered him a job.

"It was a good career for helping people. It was the best decision I've ever made."

While still a rookie, he signed up as a volunteer at Nikiski on his days off so he could get more experience. He took courses and worked his way up.

In 1996, the department promoted him to captain, putting him in charge of the engineer and two firefighters who share his shift.

Soon afterward, in the spring of 1997, he was called to his biggest fire when the Depot Mini Mall near the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Bridge Access Road burned. It happened at 3 a.m. in windy weather.

"That fire spread rapidly with high winds. In fact, the wind was blowing it to the mall next door," he said.

No one was hurt that time, but sometimes his job can be heartbreaking. Reluctantly, he recalled wrecks, teen-agers killed on the road and a freak tragedy when a child sledding near Beaver Creek hit a hole in the ice and drowned. The biggest carnage was in 1987, when a SouthCentral Air commuter plane crashed and killed six.

"That was a tough thing to wake up to," he said.

Emergency response can be dangerous for the responders, too.

"I worry on fires about buildings collapsing or back drafts," he said.

Training for responders now includes cautionary courses on hazardous materials, blood-borne pathogens and even weapons of mass destruction. Responders have been hit by traffic, electrocuted putting up ladders and involved in wrecks as they travel in their heavy rigs to calls through all kinds of weather.

Williamson's biggest fright came about three years ago while he was driving a fire truck on an icy road, hurrying to a call. In front of him, a teen-age driver and his friend spun out and ended up broadside in the road to the onrushing fire truck. Williamson went for the ditch and found himself airborne. The truck was damaged, but the crew was able to get it back on the road and continue.

The teens, meanwhile, got in a lot of trouble because, he said, they had been acting squirrely on the road before they spun out, and they fled the scene. However, he remains grateful he didn't hit them.

"We actually saved their lives by moving to the side," he said.

Reaping rewards

Despite the dangers, Williamson finds the job deeply rewarding.

"I've enjoyed helping people through their emergencies. I would recommend the job to up and coming boys and girls. ... It is a good career."

Tina said his work reflects his compassion.

"He seems to handle the stress very well," she said. "That's what Walt is: he's there for everybody."

Walden agreed that Williamson has the right personality for the job. He praised his captain's calm, intelligence and dependability.

Williamson could retire at any time. The way the system is set up, he could leave the Kenai department, collect his retirement pay and start a new career for a second income. The financial attractions are great, and he admits he's keeping an eye out for the perfect second career job.

In the meantime, he can continue working five more years at Kenai to maximize his pension. He said he's in no hurry to hang up his helmet, but retiring does have its attractions.

By his dorm bed he keeps a poster of a Caribbean island where he went scuba diving in 1988. Its white-sand beaches beckon. Someday, he hopes to return and explore the sunken ships in the turquoise water.

"There is a cannon waiting for me off the north shore," he said.

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