June 24 at 12:58 p.m.: I arrive at Central Emergency Services Station 1 in Soldotna and go looking for shift Capt. Tim Cooper. The station is quiet. A receptionist sits at the front desk, and Fire Chief Jeff Tucker sits in the common room eating lunch. The receptionist hurries off to find Tim.
We meet, and he takes me out to a bright new ambulance in the parking lot.
Inside sit three men.
"We're figuring out where to put everything," Cooper explains.
This new ambulance replaces one that was totaled over the winter when a drunk driver struck it head on. Two other new ambulances also have been ordered to replace older units, which will be donated to stations on Funny River Road and in Kachemak City.
"It was just time to replace instead of repair," Cooper says. "They'll still be used, but we're taking them off the front line."
Cooper and the other emergency workers are excited about the new models and their abundant technology.
The ambulances include up-to-date communication systems that will allow paramedics to use high-end cellular phones, fax EKG results to Central Peninsula General Hospital for physician consultation, and do a full range of lab tests in the ambulance.
"This is cutting edge-type ambulance service," Cooper says. "Not many other people are doing this."
1:15 p.m.: Cooper asks the other men to get ready to hook up the boat, while he and I walk into the station garage to take a look.
A bright yellow rigid hull inflatable boat sits mounted on a boat trailer ready to go.
It's one of the newest additions to the station -- and the purpose of my visit.
The 19-foot boat will let CES personnel respond to both fire and medical emergencies on any body of water in the area. They will be able to make water rescues, put out boat fires and fight wild land blazes from rivers, lakes or Cook Inlet. (See related story, page 1.)
As we talk, the men push the trailer out of the garage and attach it to a waiting vehicle. It takes less than five minutes.
"Are you ready?" Cooper asks, grabbing a bag of gear.
He explains that all the equipment is compartmentalized -- stored in separate bags. On a water rescue, he grabs the dive gear; on a fire call, he grabs the fire-fighting gear.
With an ambulance call, he says, all necessary equipment already is in the vehicle and preparation takes less time. But this way, the boat is just about as quick.
"We can be out in five minutes or less," he says.
1:30 p.m.: Fire Marshal Gary Hale, paramedic Rich Hill, Cooper and I climb in the car and take off. The crew explains that the biggest challenge the department faces with the new boat is water access.
"There are a limited number of launch sites," Cooper says, explaining he would eventually like to look into purchasing a hoist unit, so getting into the inlet and other bodies of water would be easier.
We have no problem, however, driving just a couple of minutes to Centennial Park near the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road.
1:35 p.m.: We climb out of the car, but before we can hit the water, it's preparation time.
The new boat is not for pleasure trips, Cooper explains. The department had to get special permission from area agencies to run the boat on restricted waters, as it exceeds the size and power regulations. It's a responsibility the crew takes seriously.
"If we're out on the boat, it's only in the worst of the worst (conditions)," Cooper says. "Most people out here maybe have a life jacket, and often they're sitting on it. That's not acceptable for us."
He hands me a blinding orange body suit and tells me to climb in. The suits are about 1.5 inches thick. The material feels like a life jacket -- a little heavy, but buoyant -- and warm. It's covered in snaps and straps at the ankles, knees, waist and wrists.
The suits not only keep the CES staff warm in nasty weather, but also are designed to compartmentalize water in case someone falls in.
"But don't worry, we won't let you fall," Cooper laughs.
1:40 p.m.: Cooper and I climb up the side of the trailer and into the boat, while Hale and Hill start backing it down into the water. Cooper fires up the engine and backs into the water. While the car is being parked, Cooper shows off the plotter. The small computer screen tells us exactly where we are on the river and traces the courses the boat has taken on earlier trips. With the touch of a button, the screen will display a compass and speedometer or identify obstructions in the water below. It's a great asset, not only on the rock-filled Kenai, but also on Cook Inlet, Cooper says.
A moment later, Hale and Hill jump aboard. We back away from the dock.
Just then, a medic request sounds over the scanner. Everyone is silent, listening intently. With a sigh, Cooper tells Hale and Hill to take me up the river and call him when we are ready for a pick-up. He jumps to shore and hurries off to take care of a man whose pacemaker is misfiring.
1:45 p.m.: Short one captain, we head upstream, slowly at first, then testing the boat's speed. Hill stands at the helm. A former commercial fishing guide, he has the most experience on the river. We reach 30 mph and the wind stings my eyes.
"This isn't as fast as it could go. It could go a lot faster," Hill says, smiling. "You feel how it goes back and forth? It wants to fly."
Hill navigates the channels with the confidence of years of experience. We dodge rocks and logs, skip through light rapids and start accelerating, topping out around 44 mph.
Two huge bald eagles perch in a tree, just beside the water. Slowly, one takes flight and swoops out in front of the boat.
"That's neat," Hill says. "I never get tired of seeing them."
But there is no stopping. This is a training run, not a cruise.
We pass Funny River and Morgan's Landing, waving to a few fishers on the quiet river.
2:25 p.m.: We reach a still, open area in the river and come to a stop. It's time to try out the water pump.
At the bow of the boat, a red wheel connects to an adjustable nozzle hose. With a flick of a switch, the hose comes to life, pumping water from the river into a directed spray.
Hale practices adjusting and aiming the spray, while Hill holds the boat against the current and pressure.
At full bore, the system will pump 1,300 gallons per minute on a fire.
The hose can be maneuvered from side to side and up and down, and different width nozzles will adjust the length of the spray and volume of water pumped through the hose.
"Do you want to try?" Hale asks, handing over the position at the hose.
I grab hold and start spraying water into the river. It's easier than I would have imagined and water shoots quite a distance.
"This is probably the biggest bonus of the boat," Hill says. "If there's a wild land fire, we have some way of fighting it from the river."
2:40 p.m.: After a few minutes of playing with the water, we take off again, heading a little further up the river to test the boat on the Naptown rapids.
We go fast, catching air at each wave and slamming down on the water. It's rough -- I clutch my camera bag between my feet and hold on to the rail as my body leaves the seat.
But Hill is in control and having fun. We get to calm waters again and stop.
"Well, I won't need to go to the chiropractor for a while," Hale says from the front of the boat.
"I was taking it easy on you," Hill insists with a laugh.
We pause for a moment for a quick rest, then turn around.
Hill guides us back through the rapids, then hands the controls to Hale.
The fire marshal is a little less experienced with the boat. He starts out slow, acclimating himself with all the controls.
But in no time, he, too, is pushing 40 mph, zooming around rocks and waves as Hill sits in front pointing which direction to take.
His style is a little more cautious -- less experience, more experimental. But he is having a good time, and I'm with two firefighter-paramedics. What could be more safe?
The trip back is uneventful. We wave to the fishers and follow the current downstream.
3:15 p.m.: We get back to the dock at Centennial Park and radio for a pick up. While we wait, Hill takes the boat a little ways further downstream -- racing so fast his cap flies from his head. We come to a splashing halt to locate it and fish it from the water, only to find it landed on the platform just behind his seat. That, apparently, is another bonus.
Hill and Hale offer me a quick chance to drive. I smile, thinking of learning to drive a stick shift on used cars. But a $70,000 fire rescue boat is no used car. I politely decline.
3:25 p.m.: We trailer the boat, slide out of the body suits and jump in the car, returning to the station. Cooper and Tucker come out to greet us, and quickly the men start talking about the boat's performance. All is going well, and with any luck, the department will soon be ready to take it out on real calls, using yet another resource to protect the people and property of the Kenai Peninsula.
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