On May 20, two of your correspondents from the Red Cross of Alaska’s Anchorage office visited the Anchorage Fire Department’s open house. Originally conceived, we thought this outing was going to be more about how our community’s emergency response system functions. It was clear from the moment we arrived that our day would have less to do with Powerpoint presentations and more with stuff kids and adults both find engaging: watching cars get dismantled with the Jaws of Life kind of stuff.
We arrived about 45 minutes after the open house started and didn’t expect much of a crowd on such a drizzly day. We were guided to a distant section of the parking lot by groups of young men in matching grey on drab blue uniforms with reflective sashes and authoritative ball caps announcing their association with the Anchorage Military Youth Academy. They had the unglamorous but important role of greeting the public at the gate, serving food, and providing what looked like safety patrols in the parking lot.
By trailing a slow-moving pod of parents and kids, we eventually found ourselves in a large warehouse-like structure full of people eating hotdogs and chips. The only seats we could find were next to this exercise where a fire fighter sounded a fire alarm that would signal to a kid who would be feigning deep sleep on a mattress on the floor to promptly lose their minds—with excitement—before being guided through an obstacle course to escape a house fire.
Over the ten or fifteen minutes we spent watching, it was difficult to see what made it so exciting. After some vigorous discussion, your correspondents concluded it was likely the adrenaline rush that comes with playacting plus the simulated taste of danger plus all the soda, caramel apple suckers, and external stimuli. (Did I mention there was a near constant ratter-ratter of a jackhammer station where kids got a chance to chisel away parts of reinforced concrete?) Regardless, and through no fault of the fire fighters running this exercise, some of the children didn’t make it. A few veered off course to play with the orange cones separating their “bedroom” from our table. Others simply finished the first few obstacles before doubling back to the front of the line.
We eventually found our way to the Red Cross booth that was sandwiched between a rope rescue station, a blood bank mobile, and the very, very, very popular dress-like-a-fire-fighter-and-blow-away-an-orange-cone-with-a-firehose station. I’m not sure what the Red Cross volunteers could have done to compete with that. Still, they were busy fielding questions and providing information about what we do in the community.
There was, however, a nagging feeling that there was still something else to find beyond the Jaws of Life demonstration and a spectacular fire engine that’s been repainted Breast Cancer Awareness pink and named Ms. Linda in honor of a Fire Captain’s mother who passed from the disease. We eventually found ourselves at a booth for the Anchorage Safety Patrol that, in the world of emergency services, felt like kindred spirits to the Red Cross.
Not quite knowing how to jump start a conversation with two fit-looking men who just watched me make a beeline for a ziplocked bag of brownies on their table, I hesitatingly asked a moustachioed man named Jason Cates how the Safety Patrol fit into things at the open house. He pointed to what your correspondents had assumed was a corrections-related van—with a variety of open compartments, grill-covered windows, and interior color scheme that felt like the visual equivalent of the word institutional—and asked if we’d ever seen it before. After some obvious hedging on our part, Jason then asked if we’d ever seen anyone too intoxicated to be in public. To this we could unhesitatingly answer in the affirmative. He pointed to the man next to him and then to the van and said, “we help those people.”
Jason then went on to describe how the Safety Patrol, in ways similar to the Red Cross, bridges gaps between other emergency services. Jason spoke passionately about how the safety patrol has an explicit focus on providing medical help to people, who, for a variety of chemically-induced reasons, are in need of assistance. This was an interesting parallel to some of the basic functions performed by the Red Cross. Where the Red Cross provides comfort and assistance to families after a house fire or at shelters during disasters, ASP responders transport people to a safety center where their recovery can be monitored by medically-trained staff.
One gobsmacking fact Jason hit us with was how in the last year alone ASP took nearly 30,000 calls. Prior to the formation of ASP, fire or police units—and sometimes both—might be dispatched. Now calls are taken by the Anchorage Fire Department Dispatch and routed as appropriate.
At some point, the arrival of new people interrupted our conversation and your correspondents felt it necessary to leave Jason and his co-workers to spread their message with new people. For all of those who dedicate their time and energy and health for the sake of public safety, we thank you.