By Mike Chihuly
For the Redoubt Reporter
It’s 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning and snowing heavily in Ninilchik. The parking lot at Ninilchik Emergency Services fire station is plowed and awaits the onslaught of volunteers to show up for the beginning of their Emergency Trauma Technician class.
Volunteers from all walks of life begin to arrive. Richard is 68 years old and a retired North Slope worker living in the old Ninilchik village. Monica is home-schooled by her parents in Ninilchik. Tessa is attends Ninilchik School. Gary and Rick are retired heavy equipment operators and live in the “Ninilchik Forties” just up Oilwell Road from town. Pam helps run her family drywall business in Ninilchik and also works a regular job at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer.
Everyone in this class is there for a reason: They want to help their community. Some have higher goals in mind and this class is just a steppingstone to bigger and better things. And most have been touched or changed by some emergency in their lives — a family member in crisis, a loved one who died or a stranger they didn’t know how to help. They now recognize the need, don’t want to be caught helpless and are answering the call that only a few are hearing these days.
“Recruitment and retention,” as it is currently called among the professional community, is a huge problem for fire and emergency medical services around the nation, Alaska included. Lack of interest? Depressed economy? Lack of compensation? No one knows for sure what is driving the number of volunteers down nationwide. What we do know is, in Alaska, there are fewer volunteers, fewer instructors and fewer classes available to train fire and EMS candidates. This can translate to a lower standard of care, slower emergency response time and burnout for those left on the frontlines.
Ninilchik has been relatively lucky in this regard. Many community-minded residents have stepped forward and, along with excellent instructors and a move toward shorter, more reasonably attainable emergency classes like the ETT class, the community has managed to keep its emergency responder numbers up. The ETT class, completed in 40-plus hours, begins with health provider CPR and progresses to topics that include treating shock, controlling bleeding, spinal immobilization, splinting, medical emergencies, childbirth and pediatrics, just to name a few.
In the past two years, Ninilchik has sponsored, paid for and conducted two ETT classes, an Emergency Medical Technician I class, an EMT I bridge class and an EMT III recertification class. Most of these classes were taught by Dick Kapp, EMT instructor.
Kapp is a wonderful instructor and has been a good fit for NES. He works as a shift captain at Central Emergency Services in Sold
otna. As part of his job duties, he is responsible for supervising responses to Ninilchik when NES requests mutual aid from Soldotna.
He understands the workings and problems encountered in small volunteer services. He is an “old-school” and a “to-the-point” instructor. He demands excellence, but he is there for you and whatever it takes to achieve that excellence. His sense of humor is “Dick Kapp dry,” but strangely charismatic. Everyone walks out of his classes enlightened, smiling and a better person for it.
In addition to EMS classes, NES has taught nearly 15 CPR and Automatic External Defibrillator classes in the last two years for its community members and emergency responders. Dr. Roy Boone and NES EMS Chief Gina Wiste, through Central Peninsula Hospital, have teamed up to form a dynamic duo that keeps NES responders American Heart Association CPR compliant.
Ninilchik Emergency Services has some big plans for the future. In addition to teaching every class for which it can find students, NES will be receiving a new ambulance this year. The ambulance is being funded in part by Project Code Blue and the Alaska Legislature, constructed in Chehalis, Wash., by Braun Inc. for Ninilchik, and will be delivered sometime in June. In addition, NES is currently working toward finding funding for a new fire/EMS station. NES has outgrown its present facilities and will need to expand to accommodate training, administration and emergency apparatus storage needs.
If anyone has an interest in giving back to their community, helping others and gaining a unique education opportunity that can save lives and strengthen resumes, contact your local volunteer fire and emergency medical services department. They need you.
Mike Chihuly is fire chief for Ninilchik Emergency Services.