Wildland firefighters face all kinds of hazards during fire season. When firefighters fall ill or get injured, getting them needed medical care is not a matter of simply calling 911. The nearest hospital is often a 300-mile flight away, pushing medical care to another level of urgency in Alaska. Something as simple as a blister on the heel of a firefighter who needs to hike miles each day, could require a flight home to recover. Colds, respiratory infections, or a stomach bug can sideline an entire 20-person hand crew.
That’s why the BLM Alaska Fire Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry teamed up to put highly trained Alaska Fire Medics into the field with firefighters across Alaska. These skilled emergency-care personnel are generally volunteers from local emergency services who additionally complete a rigorous Alaska Fire Medic training program annually to prepare them to provide medical care for firefighters and incident staff in remote locations far from the nearest hospital.
“It’s a pretty phenomenal way to get to be a part of wildland fire, out on the fireline often, supporting the firefighting efforts,” said Evan Sterling, a wildland Fire Medic for the past seven years and a lead medic for three. He also works for the Ester Volunteer Fire Department near Fairbanks. “I’m also very happy to be there when we’re really needed — both in emergencies and also to provide much-needed clinical care and routine medical maintenance for firefighters to keep them healthy and working effectively.”
At the beginning of the 2019 season, 45 Fire Medics from Alaska were trained and placed on a call as needed status. Depending on the size of the incident, two to four medical personnel are dispatched to each incident and medical equipment ranging from 250 to 450 pounds is deployed. Alaska Fire Medics must be in good standing with their Fairbanks- or Palmer-area fire department and be certified in Alaska as an emergency medical technician or paramedic. Those participating in the Alaska Fire Medic program also attend annual training in either April or May and be able to obtain a red card by taking the initial basic wildland firefighting training and annual refresher and pack test.
This summer, a total of 33 Fire Medic program personnel filled 60 EMT/paramedic requests and 17 other jobs such as a public information officer or medical unit leader. They worked 1,312 days and averaged a 39-day assignment. Due to the busy fire season, 90 medics were brought up from the Lower 48 to fill 98 fire assignments.
This year, 618 kits backpack size or larger were used in support of Alaska Fire Medics and medic from the Lower 48 for incidents in Alaska. In addition, 1,011 medical support kits were used on incidents throughout Alaska.
The Fire Medic kit can be described as a small ambulance in a box giving medics the ability to address a wide-range of ailments and injuries. They are ready to treat many minor injuries or illnesses on the fireline or in fire camps, which enables firefighters to get back to work quickly and safely. In the case of more serious medical issues, Fire Medics have the skills to appropriately assess, stabilize and support patients over extended periods of time – which is critical when Alaska’s ever-changing weather, smoke or other hazards create delays in air evacuation.
Because of this, Fire Medics need to be self-sufficient – both in terms of giving medical care and camping in the wilderness. Fire Medics need to be able to respond to a call-out within two hours and plan to be away from home and out of communication for 16 days or longer.
“Due to the remote nature of many of our fires, fire medics in our program have a wider scope of medical practice than paramedics or EMTs based in urban areas, including the boroughs of Alaska,” Sterling said. “For example, we carry antibiotics and other prescription drugs to utilize if needed, especially in the event of being smoked or weathered in with a sick patient and unable to evacuate by air to a hospital or clinic. That doesn’t happen in the Lower 48 because there are roads everywhere. It’s incredibly gratifying work in Alaska.”
The variety is what Evan Dean, who spent part of his summer on the Hadweenzic River Fire about 20 miles northeast of Beaver, loves about being a medic in Alaska. One minute, he might be helping flush debris out of the eye of a firefighter, the next, he might be preparing a burn victim for air transport.
“You don’t know where you’re going to be. You don’t know what you’re going to see,” Dean said. “The first time I was here, I thought I was in a different country.”
Dean is a registered nurse from Bend, Oregon, but has spent several medic assignments in Alaska over the years. Dean has a background in both wildland and structure firefighting and even worked as a wildland medic in the Lower 48 while going to nursing school. However, his interest in becoming a Alaska Fire Medic was piqued after he worked on a fire in Alaska with an Oregon incident management team in 2009. He stayed around a few extra days and was asked to come back for another assignment without his team. Then in 2010, he went through the Alaska Fire Medic preseason training and was soon hooked. He pays his own way to Alaska to participate in the annual Alaska Fire Medic training.
A big difference between being a medic in the Lower 48 and in Alaska, Dean said, is the logistical challenges Alaska’s remoteness can be to getting people the medical care they need. Most times, instead of sitting in an ambulance on the side of a highway overlooking the fire or sitting in a tent in a large Incident Command Post, he could be sitting at the remote Camp Nashii on a river 100 miles from the nearest town like he was on Hadweenzic River Fire. That also means that, if needed, he is a flight medic – he will package a patient for transport via helicopter or airplane and will accompany the patient where he or she will meet up with another medic for transport the patient to a hospital.
“I just love Alaska,” Dean said. “More than anything, it’s a really cool program with really good people.”
~Story by Public Information Officer Travis Mason-Bushman and BLM Alaska Fire Service Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen.
Editor’s note: Feature photo is of E.T. Collinsworth, a medic on the Hadweenzic River Fire in August 2019. Photo by Geoff Liesik, Alaska Interagency Fire Information Center