Photo courtesy of Shiloh Powell Images.
By Anne Gagliano
My husband Mike and I have had the great privilege of attending fire conferences nationwide. Every fire department across this great land of ours is largely the same yet somehow different–and so are their conferences. Many of these (but not all) have opening and closing ceremonies, ceremonies where the local fire departments as well as individual firefighters are honored and celebrated. These events are all wonderful, fun, and touching. Inspiring, encouraging. And best efforts are made by all to do a great job. But this last one we just attended, the closing ceremonies at the Alaskan Fire Conference in Kenai, hit a homerun—setting the bar a little higher for us all. A homerun? Yes, absolutely—they hit it out of the park! What was so special about this one? you may ask. It was this: They managed to embody the heart and soul of the fire department in just one simple service.
Alaska, the final frontier. This state is unique in so many ways. Flying over it, we saw things we’ve never seen before: glaciers; vast, frozen rivers melting into bodies of water; and indiscernible swirls of landscape that looked like gray and black and white sand art. It is the biggest of the U.S. states, more than twice the size of Texas; in fact, it’s bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. As big as it is, it’s ironically the most sparsely populated, with just 1.2 people per square mile. It is so isolated as to have its own time zones. And approximately 80 percent is unreachable by road. It boasts the longest coastline of all the states as well as the most licensed pilots. And, for most of the far-flung outposts in Northern and Western Alaska, the main forms of transportation are sea and air. The terrestrial transport in these remote areas has been and still is most commonly by dog sled. In winter, Alaska’s true main highways are its frozen rivers—particularly the mighty Yukon, which have been traversed by sled dogs, on foot (which is often fatal), and even by bicycle. You would think with such isolation and difficulty of travel that the state would be disjointed, disconnected, maybe even dysfunctional when it comes to family closeness within the fire department. But this is not the case. In fact, the unity of the fire department was stronger than average. And this is most especially powerful when considering the unique terrain and vastness of Alaska.
After a wonderful day of teaching both fire and marriage classes, Mike and I attended the closing ceremony. Good food, friendly chatter, lovely decorations—the whole bit. Then the speeches began. First up, the Governor of Alaska, Bill Walker. Governor Walker was wonderful. Unlike some politicians at these events, Governor Walker was warm, ingratiating, and heartfelt in his praise of firefighters. Maybe this is because he himself was once a volunteer. His enthusiasm and obvious support of the fire service were refreshing, a reminder that we do still have some committed, decent leaders in this country. As each subsequent presentation followed, the magnificence of the firefighter family unfolded before our very eyes. And this is what we hope all firefighters will realize:
Family encourages the young. Dave Tyler, the Alaska state fire marshal, presented the 2018 Fire Service Awards. Firefighter of the Year Meghan McClain (Anchorage Fire Department) was recognized for service, dedication, and extra achievement. Her enthusiasm, her spark, had been evident to Mike and me immediately when she attended both of our classes earlier that day. The leaders of her department had thoughtfully arranged for her family to be there to watch her receive her award, and delight was written all over her face when she spotted them. Not only was she rewarded for her stellar performance with the presentation of a plaque but with a standing ovation as well. The entire room rose to its feet to celebrate her. This new firefighter. This young one just starting out. Fire departments take note: Reward excellence in your departments, don’t ignore it. When you acknowledge achievement, it inspires everyone. When you don’t, the desire to achieve dies and with it the level of excellence throughout. Mediocrity then becomes the standard of the day. Set the bar high, reward those who strive hardest to reach it, and your entire department will thrive.
Family honors its leaders. Chief Mike Hicks (Cordova Volunteer Fire Department) then presented the Del Moffitt Award. It is so named after Del Moffitt himself, a man described as having incredible tenacity of heart to serve the fire department despite handicaps that resulted from childhood polio. Del’s story was touching, moving, an aptly named award for leadership. Then the bio of the recipient was read, and included among all the achievements was this amazing tidbit: The recipient was usually in charge of giving the award and believed this excluded her from ever receiving it! Incredulous that it was her, Chief Jodie Hettrick (Anchorage Fire Department) stood speechless on the stage. Moved to tears, she was unable to speak. The entire room once again stood to give her an ovation. Fire departments take note: Acknowledge your leaders when they go above and beyond to serve the troops. Reward their efforts, as good leaders are so hard to find. Those willing to sacrifice themselves for others often burn out; to keep them strong, to keep them going, take the time to honor them. Their renewed strength, in turn, will strengthen the entire department.
Family lifts each other up. When Chief Hettrick could not speak in her emotional humility and surprise at having received this award, something amazing happened. The members of her department, at first, got up and stood to the side of the stage to applaud her. As they witnessed her emotion and inability to form words, they quickly marched onto the stage and lined up behind her. Their presence instantly strengthened and calmed her, giving her the ability at last to speak–and speak well. Fire departments take note: When you see a brother or sister falter, come alongside them and lift them up. Your presence is more powerful than you know. Together, you have more courage.
Family takes care of its own. After the keynote speech (passionately delivered by the talented Captain Gagliano, my wonderful husband), yet another amazing, touching thing occurred. An “Outcry Auction” was held to bid on donated items. One of the items was a stunning metal sculpture of the American flag with a firefighter ax artfully crafted into a red stripe. It was made by the son of a firefighter, just a high school kid! It sold for $1,050! Unbelievable. Earlier, Chief James Baisden (Nikiski Fire Department) explained that the proceeds were to go to the Doss family; he, too, could not speak over the emotion that welled up in his throat. His choked-backed tears belied his affection and respect and deepest concern for his dear brother, Nikiski Firefighter Levi Doss, who is battling brain cancer. Lots of money was raised through the gracious donations of vendors and the generous bids of firefighters. And it all went to Firefighter Doss. Incredible. Fire departments take note: Firefighting is a deadly calling. It can cost our members their relationships, their health, and even their lives. When we take care of each other, when we walk through the fires together, the family is stronger. It endures. And it even grows.
Chief Jeff Tucker (Kenai Fire Department) and his staff did an outstanding job putting this event together. It is fitting that this fire conference was named “Family in the Fire Service,” as it did indeed exhibit what family is truly all about, the Alaskan way.
If you’re interested in my book, check it out here: http://www.pennwellbooks.com/shop-fire-books-videos/new-products/challenges-of-the-firefighter-marriage.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.