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First responders get national day of recognition

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A raging inferno doesn't deter them, neither does blood. In earthquakes, they're the first on scene seconds after the shaking stops. When the winds subside, they're digging through ruined houses to reach tornado victims.

They put their own lives on the line, often for free, braving rising floodwaters to get to a hurricane survivor, yet up until now no special day of appreciation has been set aside for them.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the United States Senate, at the behest of the American Red Cross, First Response Coalition and other emergency organizations, designated today, Sept. 25, as National First Responder Appreciation Day for all firefighters, emergency medical services and law enforcement.

"I think it's wonderful," said Sue Hecks, executive director for the Southern Region EMS Council in Anchorage. "I'm very pleased they finally dedicated a day to recognize the contributions not just of the paid folks, but the volunteers throughout the United States and their commitment to their communities."

This day is not only for the first responders themselves, but the families, managers and supervisors working behind the scenes enabling them to get their jobs done, Hecks said.

"They do a lot," said Jane Schultz, Kenai Peninsula EMS coordinator for the EMS Council. "And it's not only them, it's their families, too."

Despite the special day, Schultz said the borough doesn't have anything special planned, but rather than a huge ceremony today should be about going down to the fire and police station or the local emergency medical services and just thanking them, she said.

"It's just an opportunity for everyone to take a minute and thank your neighborhood first responder," she said. "Take them a box of cookies and tell them we appreciate you being here."

Between National Preparedness Month in September and Fire Prevention Month in October, Kenai Fire Chief Mike Tilly said his department hasn't had time to plan anything for National First Responders Day either.

For him, even though firefighters are defined in the U.S. Senate resolution as first responders, the real people who should be recognized are the volunteers who put their lives on the line for free.

"They're giving up a huge part of their life, I think those are the type of people that this day should be focused upon," he said. "Those are the people that drop what they're doing (whether it be) watching a movie or bouncing a kid on the knee and respond to somebody in need."

The city of Kenai doesn't have volunteer firefighters or emergency medical technicians, but Central Emergency Services does, as well as Hope, Sunrise, Ninilchik and Anchor Point. First responders also don't have to be emergency professionals, Tilly said, but the person who just happened to be nearby to offer their assistance.

"I really think it's for those volunteer organizations," he said, adding that the majority of fire departments in the United States are volunteer. "The focus should be on those first responders that are pulling 40 hours a week, plus volunteering with their local ambulance or fire service trying to better their community."

Valerie DeFrance, emergency medical chief for Hope-Sunrise Emergency Medical Services and winner of this year's Paramedic of the Year Award, said it's about time.

"Alaska has an awful lot of first responders," she said. "Some of our entire EMS groups are made up of first responders."

Working hard at the tail-end of the tourist season, DeFrance said her department hasn't planned anything by way of special event as well, but added that with a little more community involvement and planning, an event might be planned for next year.

"We just don't have the wherewithal, but we'll probably do something next year," she said. "Sometimes these days come along like this and honor us and we don't have time to celebrate them. We're so busy doing response in some communities there's not always time for people who volunteer to plan their own special events."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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