JJ Morton and Kaleb Worland became teenagers on Saturday, and their whole neighborhood heard about it.
Usually the two boys, who share the same birthday and live a few houses away from each other in Chugiak, celebrate by spending the night at Morton’s and playing video games and board games until morning comes.
With social-distancing mandates in place, that was a no-go this year. So their mothers called the fire department.
Actually, they emailed the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company after seeing a Facebook post about the department’s birthday brigades. With sleepovers, parties and dinners at favorite restaurants no longer options as Alaska hunkers down to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, the department is offering drive-by salutes for kids who live in its 50-square-mile service area.
Early Saturday afternoon, a seven-vehicle brigade — two fire engines, two paramedic trucks, a water tender, a search-and-rescue truck and a captain’s truck — paraded through the neighborhood with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“My wife told me they’d do a little parade, and I was thinking something like one or two (vehicles),” said Charles Worland, Kaleb’s dad. “Not their whole fleet.”
Kaleb called it fun. JJ called it loud, and fun.
The birthday brigades are a service the Chugiak volunteer company is thrilled to provide, said Lt. Brenda Beaty, who is helping to schedule and organize them.
“I see how much fun the volunteer responders are having with it,” she said. “After the first night, they were like, ‘OK, what have we got for tomorrow?’
“I have volunteers coming all the way from south Anchorage and the Valley just because they want to drive for an hour and see a child smile.’’
The department published a Facebook post about the brigades Thursday morning. By Saturday, Beaty had a list of 42 boys and girls in Chugiak whose April birthdays will be celebrated with drive-by salutes.
She expects the list to expand in the coming days and hopes to be able to fill all of the requests.
“As long as we’re not overstretching (our volunteers),” she said.
Saturday afternoon, JJ Morton — a 7th grader at Mirror Lake Middle School — watched the gleaming red trucks drive past as he stood in his driveway with his 9-year-old sister Gabbi; his mom, Deb; and his dad, Jeff.
Several minutes earlier, a minister from Riverside Community Church in Eagle River dressed as the Easter Bunny drove by and stopped for a few minutes. About 30 minutes after the fire trucks came drove by, a caravan of five or six cars that included the Fur Rondy bear and two members of the Rondy royal court stopped for a curbside visit.
Deb Morton said the visitors helped make JJ’s day special despite the physical limitations in place due to the spread of the virus.
“I thought, ‘What can I do to make it fun?’ ’’ she said.
A bouquet of balloons in Denver Bronco colors festooned the family’s front door, and inside was a cake decorated in Bronco blue-and-orange.
A few houses down, Charles and Misty Worland stood in their driveway with Kaleb, a newly minted 13-year-old just like JJ. Their front door was also decorated with balloons — blue and black, the colors of the Eagle River Panthers football team Kaleb plays for.
Usually his birthday includes dinner out, a sleepover with JJ and maybe a trip to the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla, Kaleb said. This birthday included fire trucks and permission to spend most of the day playing Fortnight and Madden with JJ — with each boy manning an X Box at his respective home.
Kaleb and JJ were among seven kids who got birthday drive-bys on Saturday. The whole thing took about an hour, Beaty said.
She said the department has had to turn down dozens of requests from people outside its service area.
“We’ve had requests from Wasilla, Anchorage and Bend, Oregon,” she said.
The Anchorage Fire Department does not offer a similar service, and the municipality’s website includes a notice saying so.
The Chugiak department, which has more than 100 volunteers and a fleet of 24 vehicles, is all-volunteer, and the brigades are a form of community outreach and education, Beaty said. Those who watch the trucks roll by see drivers wearing masks and practicing social distancing — there’s just one person per vehicle unless it’s carrying a crew that regularly works together on the same rig.
Families interested in scheduling a parade should email Beaty at least 24 hours in advance with the child’s name, age, birthday, address and contact information.
Beaty said she heard from Deb Morton and Misty Worland the same day the Facebook post went up. Morton contacted her first and asked if the brigade could also include her son’s friend, who has a birthday on the same day and lives on the same street. Later that day, Beaty heard from Worland, who asked the very same thing.
“That is really sweet that (they) both thought of each other’s children,” Beaty said.
The birthday brigade schedule runs through the end of April, Beaty said, but the department is prepared to extend it to May if hunker-down orders go beyond that.