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Fire Wire: Understaffed, underfunded, Nenana Fire Department fights to survive

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 5:34 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Tasked with a vital role in their community, the Nenana Fire Department is asked to provide life saving services with little to no funding and outdated equipment. The building, a 1980′s relic from Prudhoe Bay, has been repurposed from an old mechanical shop to the current fire station. On the outside of the station the paint has significant peeling, once you walk inside a single row of lights illuminates the equipment, the rest are plagued with electrical issues. The building also struggles to hold heat in the winter, risking their IV fluid. Fire Chief Joe Forness said they aren’t neglecting the station, they just don’t have the money to fix it.

A single row of working lights illuminates the inside of the Nenana Fire Station.
A single row of working lights illuminates the inside of the Nenana Fire Station. (John Doughery/KTVF)

“We don’t have the money, we don’t have the funding to purchase new equipment, to get the equipment that we have tested and recertified, to purchase new PPE," said Forness.

With no permanent staffing, 911 calls come in to a land-line phone at the station and then those calls get forwarded to personnel radios. These radios are carried by staff and answered at all hours when emergencies arise.

The land-line phone that 911 calls are sent to that are then transferred to personnel radios.
The land-line phone that 911 calls are sent to that are then transferred to personnel radios.(John Doughery/KTVF)

“During the winter months we wind up having a lot of motor vehicle accident calls. The other thing is our community has an older population so a lot of our calls deal with elderly patients,” said Lieutenant David Poppy, Nenana Fire Department. With the aging population in Nenana the department gets many medical calls.

According to Fire Chief Joe Forness they have to provide this service even though they have old equipment and a low budget.

“Any time we encounter fire, no matter what the origin is, we are supposed to be wearing air packs to protect us from any toxins that are being produced from that fire. Unfortunately we can’t use these air bottles or air packs because they are out of hydrostatic test date,” said Forness. Leaving the department without the ability to enter a building that is on fire, having to fight the flames from the outside.

Testing the air packs only costs around 60 dollars per bottle... even that is too much of an expense for the struggling department.

“Our fire department unfortunately doesn’t have the funding for that. So we had to pull all of the air bottles off and stack them on the rack here because we can’t use them. It’s not safe to use them,” said Forness.

Testing the air packs only costs around 60 dollars per bottle... even that is too much of an expense for the struggling department. So air bottles sit untested in a pile at the station.
Testing the air packs only costs around 60 dollars per bottle... even that is too much of an expense for the struggling department. So air bottles sit untested in a pile at the station. (John Doughery/KTVF)

Forness says the only money they get is from ambulance calls or the occasional grant. After they pay their insurance, the department will have less than a thousand dollars in their account.

“We don’t have the money, we don’t have the funding to purchase new equipment, to get the equipment that we have tested and recertified, to purchase new PPE,” Forness said.

Among many needed upgrades the department would like to upgrade their building. Working lights and a consistent temperature seem like luxuries to this small department.

Tasked with a vital role in their community, the Nenana Fire Department is asked to provide life saving services with little to no funding and outdated equipment.
Tasked with a vital role in their community, the Nenana Fire Department is asked to provide life saving services with little to no funding and outdated equipment.(John Doughery/KTVF)

Forness says Alaska Senators Lisa Murkoski and Dan Sullivan sent someone to look at the department but they are still waiting to hear if they can help them with funding. The department is constantly trying to secure additional funding from Federal, State and private grants.

Chief Forness said that with funding from COVID-19 relief, they were able to purchase two new ambulances which should be arriving next year.

In the meantime, with the determination of someone committed to a life of service to others, Fire Chief Joe Forness states, “We are here to provide every service available to the citizens and visitors of Nenana.”

Tasked with a vital role in their community, the Nenana Fire Department is asked to provide life saving services with little to no funding and outdated equipment.
Tasked with a vital role in their community, the Nenana Fire Department is asked to provide life saving services with little to no funding and outdated equipment.(John Doughery/KTVF)

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