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Group Of Unalaskans On Journey To Become Certified Firefighters

Maggie Nelson/KUCB


A group of locals stand around a small fire pit outside, but it's not your average weekend island bonfire. Instead of roasting marshmallows or drinking beers around the fire, most of them are dressed in full firefighter gear, waiting for their turn to attack the flames.


One after another, they step up with extinguishers. Unalaska Fire Department Captain Ben Knowles offers feedback and instruction.

"I would actually prefer that you stand up when you come at this thing because there's this lip here," Knowles said, demonstrating to the class as he kneeled near the pit. "So, if you're down next to this thing and you're hitting it, you're missing all this inside edge." 

Unalaska's Firefighter I certification course began in February and is scheduled to end sometime around June.

The course includes three major sections: fire and hazardous materials training, as well as a written portion. After completing the course and final testing, the six students participating will be certified to work as firefighters.

Kai Lloyd is a 17-year-old high schooler who started the course with some friends from shop class, but he's the only one who stuck around.

"I'm the youngest one here, but I've been here the longest out of everybody in the class," he said. "I don't get a lot of opportunities in my life to teach other people stuff because I'm young, but it's fun teaching people and learning more new stuff and driving cool stuff and playing with cool stuff — expensive stuff — that a lot of people don't get to."

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
'Having the ability to think outside the box to overcome whatever the obstacle is, is going to get you so much further in this career,' Knowles told the students.


Lloyd said he'll be graduating from high school soon and isn't sure yet whether he'll go to college, but he says firefighting could be a great career to fall back on.

Lucy Ortiz is also taking the class. She's a fourth grade teacher at Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux̂ and said one of her favorite things is having the opportunity to learn new skills. But she said it has been tricky finding time between her job and the class, which meets Friday evenings and all day each Saturday and Sunday.

"Honestly, the biggest challenge for me in taking this class, other than the physical aspects of it, is the balancing — the time commitment of volunteering at the station, taking the class and also teaching and making sure I'm providing for my kids as best I can, too," Ortiz said. 

The students finished the fire portion of the class last week. During that time, they practiced a number of different skills, such as using a fire extinguisher, keeping a scene safe, entering structures forcibly, tying knots and even just practicing moving around with all the gear on.

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
Fourth grade teacher Lucy Ortiz takes her turn tackling the flames.

Junior high and high school math teacher Emma Carr is another student in the class and has been volunteering and working with the department for about a year now. While she feels supported and welcomed by her classmates and instructors, she said some activities required in the certification program can be tough, especially as a woman.

"Fire departments are really historically male," Carr said. "And so being a woman in the fire department, there's a lot of strategies that you have to come up with to be more efficient or figure out a strategy that works for you that maybe no one else can show you how to do, and you kind of have to figure it out." 

As the team struggled for nearly half an hour trying to force a door open — using different strategies, different tools and simply brute force — it became clear that they weren't going to give up and that a major part of the course is learning how to collaborate and work creatively.

"Having the ability to think outside the box to overcome whatever the obstacle is, is going to get you so much further in this career," Knowles told his students shortly before they succeeded in prying the door open. 

In total, Knowles said the students will learn almost 40 different skills. After they get through them all and are considered proficient, he said state fire officials will come to the island to evaluate the students on five mandatory skills and five random ones.

Overall, he said his favorite thing about teaching the course is watching the students progress. And when they do finish, there should be about 15 certified firefighters on the island, according to Knowles. And he said that's a big deal for the community.

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
After completing the course and final testing, the students will be certified to work as firefighters.

"Just upping that number, that's hugely important, especially being way out here," he said. "We don't have the luxury of calling a neighboring city or having those partners that are willing to be right there with us in the event of an emergency." 

While the final test date was scheduled for early May, travel restrictions due to the pandemic have slowed things down, and the test will likely take place closer to June, said Fire Chief Patrick Shipp. The hazardous materials training portion begins this week and is led by fire captain Mike Hanson.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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