Bethel Fire Department gets a new fire engine
The smell of hotdogs and hamburgers wafted from the Bethel Fire Station grill on a brisk fall morning. Both full time and volunteer firefighters rolled out hoses and equipped neighborhood kids with safety vests and plastic fire helmets.
More than 50 people gathered around a table in front of Bethel’s shiny new pumper, Fire Engine 5, on Saturday, Oct. 21.
“We're here to celebrate. And we're gathering for Engine Five to be put in service,” said Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee.“This is a very important piece of equipment for our community. As you may know, we've had some pretty old trucks in the past. So what we've done is updated our fleet to better serve the community. It's more than just steel and hoses. It's a testament to our unity and our strength as a team.”
Bethel’s Fire Department opened in 1957. Solesbee talked about the department’s rich history. In 2022, the department responded to 1,280 Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls and 198 fire incidents.
Then they formally welcomed the fire engine into the fold. First, firefighters hosed it down to symbolize the importance of water in firefighting, and to serve as a reminder of the firefighter’s commitment to protecting the community. But the ceremony didn’t end there. The next step involved what’s called the push in.
Solesbee asked the crowd for help. The task was simple: help him and the department push Fire Engine 5 back into the bay.
The tradition dates back to the 1800s. After crews returned from a call on horse-drawn equipment, the animals were unable to back into the station so firefighters had to detach the horses and push the equipment back into the bay.
“This is just a throwback to that and an honor. It's a way for us to honor our traditions and the past of the fire service. And plus, it's a way to make sure that the new apparatus is blessed, and that we can have some protection over the equipment, and the firefighters, and the people we serve,” Solesbee said.
It took two and a half years to get the fire truck, Solesbee said. The major issue was production delays from the supply chain and raw material shortages like steel brought on by the pandemic.
“We finally were able to get it fully constructed this summer. And here on the last barge. So we've been very blessed in everything that we've gotten, and I want to thank the city council for helping me get that. It's a very much needed piece of equipment for our community,” Solesbee said.
Currently, the fire department has three fire engines, some small support vehicles, and three advanced life support ambulances.
“ We are pretty well equipped for being out in Western Alaska,” Solesbee said.
Although the city is well equipped now, it still lacks staffing. Solesbee is still looking for volunteers, but this isn’t just a local issue.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit membership association that represents the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue services, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a low in 2020. At the same time, call volume has more than tripled in the last 35 years, due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls.
So for the chief, this wetdown ceremony provides another purpose.
“This is one of those opportunities where we can talk with the community and show them stuff that we have and what we're capable of. We provide free training, certification courses that you can take anywhere with you. We just asked for people to volunteer their time to help the paid members with the equipment maintenance and upkeep, training, and just serving the people. We go on quite a few calls,” Solesbee said.