Keeping it close to home

Soldotna native Dan Grimes has returned home after a lengthy career in Fairbanks as Central Emergency Services’ new deputy chief.

When former Chief Chris Mokracek retired this fall, the position was filled by the former deputy chief, Roy Browning, who got his start in firefighting as a 16-year-old Eagle Scout in a fire explorer program, and worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill as an Emergency Medical Technician in 1989. Following his promotion, the deputy chief position was left open for several weeks this fall.

Grimes, who was born in Soldotna but has worked in Fairbanks since 1991, completed his first day on the new job on Monday.

“It’s been incredible,” he said of his return. “Day one has been a huge success for me because I’m learning a billion things.”

Grimes, who said he originally wanted to go into law enforcement, got his start in emergency services when he began volunteering at a small Fairbanks fire department in 1991.

“Even as a kid in high school I was a lifeguard at the Soldotna High School pool,” he said. “Even then I was interested in helping people. I really enjoyed that aspect with it.”

Grimes and Browning both attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks to begin their careers.

“Being up in Fairbanks really, I think, helped prepare me for coming here,” Grimes said. “…That program’s just excellent. It molds you, shapes you. You’re constantly learning.”

The next several years were spent working his way up from job to job, which he said culminated in a 19-year career with the Fairbanks International Airport. He left as the deputy chief of the airport’s fire and police department.

The job represented the best of both worlds to Grimes, who said he dealt with everything from aircraft crashes and shootings to cases of domestic violence and people trying to smuggle drugs and alcohol. Grimes hadn’t been planning on leaving, he said.

“I was not job shopping… but this was too good to pass up,” he said of his new position.

Even though he’s been separated from home by many miles, Grimes said he always kept in touch with Browning.

“The emergency services community in Alaska is a very close knit family,” he said.

Browning, too, spent several years away from the Kenai Peninsula before settling down at CES. After working his way up from college to the City of Kenai Fire Department to CES, Browning spent a 13-year stint as a firefighter in Aurora, Colorado. He said the northern part of the city was very diverse, which meant he was faced with language barrier issues on top of gang and drug activity.

“It was fun to me,” Browning said. “I wanted to go down there because I wanted to have more experience with some of that stuff.”

Browning was one of the first responders who dealt with the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. Several of his friends responded to the actual shooting, while Browning was camped out at the man’s apartment for several days following the incident, he said.

“I worked at Fire Station 8, and that is about a half a mile from the theater,” Browning said. “I was an A-shifter, and all of my friends, everybody I worked with that was on B shift was there. I got a call, but I didn’t go out until the next day to assist with the removal with the FBI and (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). (The shooter) had booby-trapped his apartment off of Peoria Avenue, and he had set it up to go off at midnight, so I assisted with them because I was part of the hazmat team.”

Since returning to Alaska, Browning said he has shifted his focus to making CES effective under different circumstances and challenges. The department’s run volume, or the number of emergency calls it responds to, is more than 7 percent ahead of last year’s number, he said.

It can be difficult to respond to more calls over a greater area of responsibility, Browning said.

“Alaska presents different challenges. First of all, we’re resources challenged,” he said. “(In Aurora) I could get 30 firefighters on scene in eight minutes, and I could call for a second alarm, and 12 minutes later I’d have another another 30. … I couldn’t do that here. … We’re talking 1,000 square miles of firefighting response (area) and 2,200 of EMS (response area) here, so it’s a geographical (challenge.)”

Both Browning and Grimes have a few ideas when it comes to steering CES over the years to come.

Grimes said it is important to plan for a department’s future in a way that lets it be successful no matter who serving in leadership roles.

“If you set your expectations out clearly and provide a road map for department members, they will exceed your expectations over and over again as long as you show them where you want to go,” he said.

Finding adequate funding is an ongoing issue, Browning said, and he will also turn his attention to maintaining the department’s paramedic program.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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