Recently, dramatic rescues have dominated the news in rural Alaska. From one end of Alaska to the other, first responders were pulling together to save those in peril. There is nothing quite like being involved in a rescue effort. Humans, by and large, tend to run away from danger. But those who have signed up to be rescuers — many as volunteers — sign up to do the opposite. They leave the safety of their homes and rush into danger, often in the worst conditions, selflessly putting their own needs secondary to the needs of others.
In theory, this sounds like a glamorous role drawing on bravery and physical prowess. In reality, though, first responders come in all shapes and sizes, and skill trumps bravery on most emergency scenes. Months and even years of training are required to accomplish successful rescues as rescuers must prepare for the multitude of scenarios they may encounter, from extricating people from twisted metal, off rock faces or out of burning buildings.
Training to be an emergency responder has become more and more technical as the years have gone by. Early images of firefighters hanging off the back of speeding fire trucks have been replaced with seat belts and a thick binder full of safety procedures. In fact, becoming an entry-level medic, even as a volunteer, can take a year or longer in some areas, including two semesters of college-level courses combined with skills practice. Make no mistake, volunteer emergency responders and paid staff alike devote a huge portion of their lives to training, and a large chunk of that training is far from glamorous and exciting. And the most heroic thing about some of the federally mandated safety classes is the superhuman effort needed to stay awake through them.
All that aside, however, the dedication and determination of most emergency responders is absolutely heroic. And the reward comes not from the swoons of onlookers as responders race into danger. Instead, it is the camaraderie of working together against extraordinary odds and the joy of knowing you helped another individual in need.
In rural Alaska, where traditional sources of help can be hours or days away, this heroism shines through again and again. Alaska's rural first responders go out into blizzards to find those lost, struggle to save the hurt and dying, often aiding those with injuries that would make many doctors panic, and rise far above the expectations of the average citizen time and time again. They draw on the self-sufficient spirit that defines Alaska.
This week, a report from Bethel said that firefighters lacked information about where to connect to the sprinkler system of a school that burned there. One can only imagine the frustration responders must have felt when they realized this essential piece of information was unavailable. They connected to the building's drinking water system, but the extra water just flowed into storm drains.
Hidden from view was the building's sprinkler connection, unmarked and unknown to even school maintenance workers. Had they known, the school might still have burned to the ground. But certainly, this information would have helped slow the spread of the fire.
The community's fire chief said the department wanted to survey all buildings in the community, but staff cuts and an increased response load kept responders from doing much beyond responding. That's a similar story across the state — proactive efforts that might help dramatically are often mothballed due to the immediate demands of the job. And a constantly rotating volunteer workforce only makes matters more challenging. Unquestionably, more resources, not less, would help first responder efforts dramatically.
But even despite these challenges, Alaska's first responders are beacons in the dark showing us that the strength that built this state is still firmly in place. There is nothing like the energy and determination when a group of people comes together in a mutual effort to save their fellow community members to renew one's faith in the goodness of the human spirit. Though they don't do it for the praise, take a moment to thank them when you pass by a first responder in the grocery store line or at the post office. Their devotion to helping the rest of us is worthy of that and so much more.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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