Remote. Rugged. Extreme. Coast Guard firefighting in Kodiak

KMXT received this article and photo from the U.S. Coast Guard public affairs office. We’ve posted it as received.
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Dean 
U.S. Coast Guard District 17

Firefighter Phillip Galindo dons his gear, layering up for the unforgiving Alaskan elements. For Galindo, it’s just another day at work on the rock, which is situated roughly 250 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Galindo is a paid, federal EMT-2-certified firefighter with the Coast Guard Fire Department (CGFD) and is one of the newer members on the department. He landed in Kodiak with his wife Catherine in June of 2018. Galindo served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a firefighter before this position, which he adds has given him a good feel for what to expect in his current job.

“Thursday, as I was coming to work, they had a rollover,” Galindo said. “I think someone slid over into the lane. A lot of (the calls) are car accidents.”

William K. “Bill” StClair II, the CGFD Fire Chief, mentioned a few key tips regarding winter driving.

“Not only are we the Coast Guard fire department, but we cover the road system from Dead Man’s to the fairgrounds, and if someone has a vehicle accident in that area, we’re the first responders that go and patch them up and take care of them,” said StClair. “People need to slow down, they need to make sure that their vehicles are maintained properly, that they have good tires on them. They don’t always have to have studded tires, but good tires, and slow down.”

StClair is a U.S. Air Force veteran and also started his career in firefighting in the military. He has been with the Kodiak department since 2001. He’s conditioned to the ways of the Kodiak road system and cautions people to drive carefully.

StClair said that the speed limit from Dead Man’s Curve to the Kodiak airport is 55 miles per hour, but if it were driven at 40 miles per hour, a driver only loses about 48 seconds of commute time. Going slow in the winter is the key to safely navigating Kodiak roads.

 

Two Kodiak-based Coast Guard firefighters practice using proper nozzle and hose techniques to douse the flames of a simulated helicopter fire during air rescue firefighting training held at the Kodiak-based Coast Guard fire department, Kodiak, Alaska, June 1, 2019. Kodiak-based firefighters routinely train for potential aircraft fires as they are on standby for Air Station Kodiak aircrews upon take-off and landing. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Billy Ecret.

 

 

Billy Ecret, CGFD Assistant Chief and a 20-year U.S. Army veteran and retiree, echoed similar sentiments to the public regarding driving conditions.

“Kodiak is notorious for a really big inversion,” said Ecret. “Our worst time is in the morning when the sun comes up.”

An inversion, as Ecret explains it, happens when the sun rises and pushes all the cold air from the top of the mountain down to the roads, causing them to flash freeze.

A frozen surface with moisture on top makes for very dangerous road conditions. If it is wet outside and the temperature is in the 30’s, it is almost a guarantee that the roads will freeze as soon as the sun starts going down.

But car crashes are just the cusp of the firefighter’s duties here.

Galindo says he has responded to calls about suicides, drunk drivers, people running into poles due to medical conditions, sheer rock cliff falls, fires and vessel collisions. These brave men and women are prepared to handle the myriad of cases that come their way.

One of the largest issues the department currently faces is the hurdle of hiring people to come to Kodiak. Kodiak is small and thousands of miles from home for many on the department. It’s a hard sell to get members to the rock, and for some, to get them to stay.

Of the 32 available positions in the department, only 25 are currently staffed. It’s tough for the crew to cover the overtime required to meet minimum manning levels. This exacerbates the challenge of maintaining the training quotas and workload required to stay proficient.

Ecret also mentioned the stress of providing mutual aid for other departments as well, including the Bells Flats all-volunteer department.

“We are the first folks to run mutual aid to Bells Flats,” said Ecret. “The Women’s Bay Fire Department, it’s all volunteer. I’m also chief out there. We have very few people, I think six or seven. When we have something out there, any kind of structural fire, we’re automatically calling the Coast Guard for mutual aid, because we don’t have the man power.”

Ecret mentioned that they have the equipment, but not enough qualified personnel to help.

Galindo said his experience in Kodiak has been interesting. The firefighters are expected to be trained in both structural and airport firefighting techniques. They also need to be able to provide 24/7, year-round assistance to the entire Coast Guard Base, cutters, aircrews, the local airport and along the road system in their jurisdiction.

To maintain qualifications, the crews routinely train for structural firefighting, aircraft firefighting, confined space training, hazmat training, rope rescue and medical training, and routinely inspect buildings for fire hazards and safety.

As for fire prevention measures, crews annually survey 430 houses on Base Kodiak, as well as at least annually inspect more than 90 Coast Guard buildings. Inspections cover fire safety concerns while also addressing life safety issues such as lighting, exiting, fire alarm and sprinkler coverage.

Galindo emphasized how detailed apparatus checks are; they test functional capabilities of equipment, change batteries, start chain saws and run ventilation fans. The crews also test all the emergency vehicles and their component functions. They run all the pumps and check the lights and safety gear to ensure readiness for when the call comes.

But if a call comes in, the crews are on a rotating duty schedule to respond.

“We standby as the ‘crash’ for the airport in case something happens,” said Galindo. “If there were an emergency, like a fire that needed more personnel to respond, we would do a recall.”

This means that the firefighters would call the tower, drop manning for emergency services at the airport and transition to respond to the structural fire.

In larger cities like Chicago or New York, many departments have the luxury of calling in backup, but being geographically located on a remote island in Alaska presents a unique set of challenges.

Fortunately, if there is a need, they can call the city for mutual aid.

Regardless, even minimally-staffed, CGFD members continue to put in the hours needed to do their jobs and to do them to the high federal standard that is required.

“We don’t have the people, but we’re trying to get to that point,” said StClair.

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