The Kenai River Brown Bears hockey players are used to wearing a lot of gear, but running through the training drills at the Kenai Fire Department still presented a challenge.
Blinded by blackout masks, breathing controlled air, stifled with thick fire protection jackets and pants, three Brown Bears players crawled along the wall of the engine bay at the Kenai Emergency Operations Center at the Kenai Municipal Airport. A piercingly loud chirping ricocheted from the walls of the room, reminding the three “firefighters” that somewhere in the room, a comrade was in trouble.
Blind and on their knees, crawling in a line, they felt their way around the edge of the bay trying to locate him by the sound of the chirping from a Personal Alert Safety System, a device designed to set off an alarm if a firefighter stops moving. The other Brown Bears players watching crowded around as the three crawled toward him, chuckling when they nearly bypassed him by accident.
“Now you have to go back out the way you came, because you don’t know where the door is,” said Kenai Fire Marshal Tommy Carver as the three rescuers converted the straps on the fallen firefighter’s backpack into a harness.
Luckily for them, they didn’t have to haul him all the way back around the bay. The drill ended and they pulled off their masks, laughing at the difficulty of the drill.
“So that’s where we were!” said David Kaplan, who’d led the team of rescuers around the bay.
The Kenai Fire Department took the Kenai River Brown Bears under their wing for the afternoon to show them the basics of firefighting and emergency medical work, running through training drills and taking short rides in the fire engine docked at the Kenai Emergency Operations Center out onto the tarmac. The goal was to introduce them to firefighting as a potential career path, Carver said.
The Brown Bears, a junior hockey league team based in Soldotna, brings young hockey players from around the country to play in Alaska. However, it’s not a direct path to the professional leagues, and the Kenai firefighters gave the players an idea of what response work is like.
Kenai Fire Department does combined emergency medical and fire response, so all responders have to be cross-trained. Firefighter Pete Coots said it can be a tough career because of the graphic nature of scenes they respond to, but it’s important to take care of patients.
“We try to treat them like they’re our family,” he told the players.
There was a fair amount of chuckling and horseplay as some of the players strapped on all the gear and made an attempt at crawling between two tires of one of the engines, meant to simulate a tight spot for firefighters to crawl into. They also got a chance to see other tools firefighters use, including a battery-powered cutter they used to cut up a metal chair.
Firefighters have to work on a tight schedule, too. They may respond to accidents or fires on the Kenai Municipal Airport runways, in which case they have three minutes at most to get gear on and get out on the runway to help, Carver said. However, on the times between calls, it can be a fairly jovial environment as the firefighters complete training and tasks around the stations.
At the end of the day, Kaplan said he enjoyed the experience.
“I definitely have a lot more respect for what (firefighters) do now,” he said.