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Unalaska Fire Department Selected For Two Prestigious Awards Following Year Marked By Tragedy

Hope McKenney/KUCB


Unalaska's Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services has been selected for two prestigious awards by the Governor's Alaska Council on Emergency Services. 

At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. presented Fire Captain Ben Knowles with the statewide award for 2020 EMS Provider of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the EMS field, as well as his exceptional work for the City of Unalaska.


Credit Aleutian Islands Photography

"We recognize and commend your exemplary service and dedication to our community," said Tutiakoff. "This is the kind of citizenship demonstrated every single day by this hero. He routinely goes above and beyond the call of his paid and voluntary duties to serve the citizens of this island. He saves lives." 


Knowles said he was honored and humbled to receive the award.

"I'm honored to be even considered to be nominated," he said. "I think that this award, even though it's an individual award, definitely speaks volumes about the entire organization. As an individual in this profession, you can't go it alone. There's not one single person that can do everything in the back of an ambulance or everything on a fire scene."

Knowles has been a firefighter and EMS provider for about nine years and moved to Unalaska from Minnesota two and a half years ago to work for the local department. 

"I started because my dad's also a firefighter," Knowles said. "So that obviously was a huge part of why I came into the profession. It's something that as a little kid, seeing your dad do cool stuff and always wanting to tag along — it just was instilled in me from day one. I've always wanted to follow in his footsteps and make him proud."

Credit Aleutian Islands Photography
Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. presents Ben Knowles with his ACEMS award during Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Knowles said when he applied for the job as captain with the fire department in Unalaska, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. 

"I have a good idea of what a captain's job designation is in the Lower 48, but not in bush Alaska," he said. 

Because of the limited resources on the island and its isolated location in the Bering Sea, Knowles said jobs at Unalaska's fire department — for all 30 firefighters, volunteers, captains, and chief — encompass much more than most jobs in departments in more metropolitan places.

"It's pretty wild, because it's not like you're in a department where you run three, four, 10 times as many calls, and you don't know anyone involved," he said. "In Unalaska, every call you run, you've had some sort of interaction with that person, just being such a close, tight-knit community. So the calls that this department has seen, big and small, impact our [first responders] in just a totally different way, and it's definitely been eye opening for me."

According to Knowles, the last year and a half has been hard for the community. From the death of a Coast Guardsman in January of last year, to the loss of multiple teenagers, two plane crashes, a string of overdoses and deaths of community members, and a fatal avalanche — the events have been non-stop. 

"No department in this world runs calls like that. Not in succession," Knowles said. "They might, every three or five years, have a commercial plane accident, maybe by a bush pilot, and then an avalanche or something. But this has just been non-stop. And I think that this was a great way to show those volunteers that the hard times that they've had to endure and push through to continue serving — it hasn't gone unnoticed."


Credit Aleutian Islands Photography
Unalaska's Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services was also awarded the Outstanding Ambulance Service Award.

In addition to Knowles' individual award, the Unalaska Fire Department was also awarded the Outstanding Ambulance Service Award of the year. 

The award recognizes a ground ambulance or first responder service which has had outstanding success in providing year-round community service and in gaining support and involvement of the entire community in its service and education activities, or which has shown heroic performance on a special occasion. 

Fire Chief Patrick Shipp said it's unprecedented that a department, as well as an individual of that department, are both awarded top awards in one year.

"It shows that the city and the fire department have developed a fantastic relationship with one another, and we provide extraordinary service to the community," he said. 

Shipp — who only started working at the department six months ago— said he wants to give credit where credit's due. And that's to the "extraordinary leadership" prior to his arrival and to all of the fire and EMS individuals who responded to the tragic events over the past year and a half. 

"To all those incidents, the fire department and EMS have responded to each one of those," he said. "I hate to say that they were awarded this just because of the bad things that have happened, because it's really not. It's the service that they provide every day to the citizens, but also those bad incidents that have happened over the last year and a half. So hopefully, we don't have any more of those. But if we do, we will respond and provide the best care we can." 

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum formally presented Knowles and the Fire Department with the state awards Thursday afternoon. 

"It is quite an honor," said City Manager Erin Reinders. "And I cannot be more proud of the department and proud of Ben. It certainly has been a challenging year and a half for the entire community. And many people have stepped up to the plate in times of need, and the fire department is certainly one of those groups that have really risen to the occasion, and our community is certainly better off for having that group here."


Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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