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Ben Knowles named Unalaska’s new fire chief

Ben Knowles joined the Unalaska Fire Department in 2018.
Courtesy of Cesar Castaneda
Ben Knowles joined the Unalaska Fire Department in 2018.

Unalaska has a new fire chief, nearly a year after the previous chief stepped down.

Ben Knowles, who served as a firefighter in Minnesota before joining the Unalaska Fire Department in 2018, was promoted to the head role on June 1. Knowles has held several leadership positions with the department, and has been recognized with statewide awards for both service and leadership.

“This position is definitely something different than I'm used to. I've always been a first line supervisor, boots-on-the-ground type of grunt worker,” Knowles said. “There are a lot of things that really play a part in being successful in this position, and so what I'm doing is learning from those that have come before me.”

The fire department consists of five full-time staff — a fire chief, two captains and two firefighters, as well as a roster of community volunteers. Knowles said they have the capacity for approximately 30 volunteers, but currently only have about half of those positions filled.

While the majority of incidents occur within the city, Knowles said sometimes the department must respond to calls beyond city limits.

“Let's say we have an international vessel that doesn't want to break that imaginary line of the international waters, but they still need medical services. We actually have contracts with tugboat companies to send our medics out to the pilot station to get those folks and bring them back in,” Knowles said. “So it's a very dynamic environment.”

Knowles said being an emergency responder in a small community poses unique challenges, like responding to an emergency involving friends or acquaintances.

“It's difficult for everybody being a part of this community and then having to go and respond — be the person that someone calls upon to help,” he said. “It could be someone that you just ate dinner with, or it could be someone that you just had a conversation with at the store.”

Unalaska has faced several major catastrophic events during Knowles' five years with the department. He was on the team that responded to a deadly car crash on Mount Ballyhoo, a fatal plane crash, and most recently, a missing person case that resulted in a fatality.

But Knowles said that the strength of the community makes dealing with those tragedies bearable.

“I'm super appreciative of the community, because every time one of those big, large-scale events happens, something that impacts this community in the most profound ways, somehow, this community comes together in a way that is nothing short of amazing,” he said.

Knowles said one of his goals moving forward is to make sure everybody in Unalaska feels supported and that the department is responsive to the community’s needs.

“Coming up through the ranks, I really appreciated all of the leadership that I received, that made me feel like I was given the tools to be successful. And that's what I want to make sure that we're doing,” Knowles said. “I want to make sure that not only our full-time staff, but our fire department as a whole — volunteers, support staff, career members — feel that they're part of one team accomplishing one goal, and that they are supported and given the tools to complete that goal.”

City Manager Bil Homka said in a statement that Knowles is “a community-oriented public servant,” and that he has the “experience, certifications and skills to continue improving the Fire Department.”

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