Chugiak fire, rescue calls down in ‘18; volunteer hours on the rise

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 11:31
  • A Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department truck returns to the station after responding to a vehicle crash on the Glenn Highway on Jan. 16, 2019. The department responded to 924 calls in 2018 and its members logged more than 65,000 volunteer hours. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Calls were down slightly in 2018, but Chugiak’s volunteer fire department was still red hot.

Calls for service decreased by about eight percent last year even as the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department saw a surge in volunteer hours thanks to what chief Tim Benningfield says has been a concerted effort to draw in new recruits.

“We’ve had a great recruitment and retention effort,” Benningfield told the Chugiak Community Council recently.

Benningfield said the department’s volunteers logged 56,000 hours in 2018. The previous year, the department totaled more than 51,500 hours.

The chief said that represents a huge benefit for the people living in Chugiak, Birchwood and Peters Creek.

He said the State of Alaska estimates a volunteer firefighter hour is worth $27 to the community. Using that figure, volunteers provided more than $1.5 million in volunteeer services to the community.

“That’s pretty significant,” he said.

He wouldn’t speculate on why calls for service declined, but roughly 70 percent of all CVFRD responses are medical in nature.

Because of that fact, Benningfield told the Birchwood Community Council the department recently purchased a custom Ford F150 — what he called “basically a personnel carrier.” The truck will allow the department to respond to medical calls without having to tie up a more expensive, less maneuverable piece of machinery.

“We’re keeping that $800,000 fire truck off the roads on nights like this,” he said at the Beach Lake Chalet, where just outside a group of youth cross-country skiers practiced in near-zero weather.

There are about 112 active members currently in the department, said Benningfield, who is one of four paid administrative employees.

One of those is Andrew Sather, a 2007 Chugiak High grad who told the Birchwood Community Council he joined up to help his community “when, honestly people are having the worst day of their life.”

Benningfield said committed volunteers like Sather are the lifeblood of the department.

“He averaged 24 hours per week last year,” Benningfield said.

He said one of the keys to the department’s success has been its ability to attract up-and-coming firefighters and EMTs who are interested in becoming career first responders. Rather than being upset when volunteers move to paid forces, Benningfield said “it’s a pride thing for me.”

“We’ve embraced it.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274

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