The Arctic Sounder

Public safety commissioners suggest a K-9 unit in the Northwest Arctic

To reduce the importation of drugs to Northwest Arctic villages, local public safety commissioners suggested bringing in a search dog,

Northwest Arctic Borough Public Safety Commission met over two days last week to update residents on changes and plans for emergency response and law enforcement programs across the region. The commission consists of village representatives and borough officials and is responsible for reviewing and recommending on all aspects of public safety.

The commissioners adopted a resolution, asking the borough assembly to support the institution of a K-9 program, said Chris Hatch, borough director of public safety.

“It would be an available resource within the region to help reduce importation of drugs,” Hatch said. “There’s been long-standing complaints of drug importation from most of our communities over the last decade. That’s changed from complaints about pills to complaints about pills, cocaine and methamphetamines, so it seems to be a growing issue.”

The idea is to bring a single search dog that would recognize most drugs, except for marijuana. Hatch emphasized that the dog would not be a protective, or “bite,” dog. Two handlers would rotate taking care of the dog — the arrangement that would work well with the two-weeks-on-two-weeks-off schedule of borough Village Public Safety Officers, he said.

Officers would bring in the dog to search luggage or vehicles, he said. They could also use the dog for presentations in schools, Hatch said.

Supporting local fire responders

Commissioners discussed the five-year borough Public Safety Department Strategic Plan, which includes such priorities as staff and volunteer training and recruitment, maintaining infrastructure and equipment, as well as emergency prevention and response.


One of the biggest discussions that sparked from it was around supporting local fire departments and the goal to grow fore department’s capacity.

The borough has about 120 volunteers in fire departments across the region and has been putting efforts into recruitment.

Mayor Dickie Moto said that given the shrinking borough budget, it will be hard to invest more money in fire departments.

“We’ve been paying $50,000 per year on fire. It’s not going to happen in the future,” Moto said. “Incentives we give them right now, they are going to go away” as the borough budget shrinks.

Borough Public Safety Administrator Josephine Howarth pointed out that the borough can collaborate more with villages — tribal government that are eligible for federal grants.

“I’m asking you to ask our local people what works, what worked, and they will make it happen,” Howarth said.

Borough Fire Safety Coordinator Hans Nelson said that actions like showing appreciation and offering food and beverages during fire meetings can also be helpful to support volunteers.

“These are individuals that we call upon,” Nelson said. “It is right to recognize our volunteers, to recognize our fire chiefs and the work that they’re doing to ensure that they don’t go unnoticed. ... In my mind, that’s the best that we could do.”

All borough fire departments are volunteer-based and have unpaid volunteers, as well as battalion chiefs who receive a stipend — $2,250 every quarter — and are responsible for the fire equipment, meetings, training, getting volunteers and keeping them involved, Hatch said.

“The biggest idea that (commissioners) threw forward was that the battalion chiefs should be better compensated for their time, and we should then hold them more accountable for the things we need them to do,” Hatch said.

The need for training volunteers was also highlighted during the meeting.

“We want to make sure training plans are implemented,” Nelson said. “We need a coordinated response during chaos.”

In the last year, the borough provided fire training in three communities and offered opportunities for regional volunteers and battalion chiefs to attend statewide fire conferences and trainings, Hatch said. In the coming year, the plan is to visit three more more communities to provide basic firefighter training, he said.

“The goal is to learn basic skills: learn to use the pump, learn to use the hose, learn to work as a team. Let’s learn how to do it safely, and then we will start adding things,” Hatch said. “If we can’t even pump the water first, none of this other stuff matters.”

When the borough provides training in one community, they also invite residents from neighboring communities to attend, Hatch said.

In terms of fire prevention, this spring, the borough started upgrading smoke alarms in the villages. The first village to implement the change was Noorvik, the community where a residential fire killed one woman and five children this winter.

“It was reported that there were no working smoke alarms in the residence,” Hatch previously said.


After the Noorvik fire, local fire chiefs drew attention to the fact that in many houses in the region, smoke alarms were either not working or were not properly installed, Hatch said.

“The biggest frustration was that they would have smoke alarms in the house sitting on the table with no batteries,” Hatch said. “The solution that we came up with was to provide smoke alarms that you can’t take the batteries out.”

The borough plans to distribute and install lithium-powered 10-year sealed smoke alarms in every village. In Noorvik, most residents they visited agreed to the installation. Next, the borough will visit Selawik.

The commission is also working on improving existing infrastructure that supports public safety employees — such as improving housing for VPSOs, upgrading water and sewer facilities in jails and funding warm storage facilities for search and rescue teams in communities.

One major update Hatch highlighted was updating the borough VPSO program in the past year. The borough added background checks and psychological exams as requirements for all new officers. The officials armed one of their officers, the VPSO coordinator Joshua Harville, and plan to arm most officers working for the borough by the end of summer.


Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.