Volunteer extinguisher

Posted: Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hundreds of feet of fire hose were covered by ice that grasped and froze them into a thick layer. Meanwhile, a fire garishly scorched an unoccupied store as the air temperature hovered around minus 12. The building was smoldering with paints, oils, chemicals and other flammable materials being consumed by the flames for an hour prior to the firefighters’ arrival.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn
Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

In the middle of it all stood Ken Lawrenson, a volunteer firefighter with Capital City Fire and Rescue as well as a civilian employee working for the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau.

Lawrenson and his fellow firefighters worked to extinguish the fire, which happened to have fallen on the coldest night during the month of February 2008. More than 1 million gallons of water were used in the effort, which created a layer of ice a foot and a half thick on the street. The fire was eventually extinguished in the same night, but work continued through the next day to free their gear and equipment from the layers of ice formed during the fight.

Graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1984, Lawrenson served on active duty for six years until leaving to work in maritime safety.  By day, he currently works as the 17th Coast Guard District fishing vessel safety coordinator, but after hours he puts his military training to use as a volunteer firefighter.

Fires can happen at any time, which is why firefighters continuously train to be prepared for any situation. However, it’s one thing when a firefighter receives a paycheck and quite another when one selflessly serves his community on their own time. The latter is the case for Lawrenson, who helped extinguish the aforementioned fire — his most memorable since becoming a volunteer in 2007.

The act of volunteering for Lawrenson was driven by his observation that the Lynn Canal Fire Station was closed at the time due to a lack of volunteers. Lawrenson drove by the station every day until he finally came to the decision to become a volunteer.

“I have always believed that volunteerism and community service is important, and I saw this as a good way to give back to Juneau and get involved with the community in a meaningful way,” said Lawrenson. “Little did I appreciate then that the fire service is a tight brotherhood, and that the core values of firefighting are exactly the same as for the Coast Guard: Service to the public, professionalism and readiness.”

With the required paperwork and 200 hours of training completed, Lawrenson was given the yellow helmet that signified he was a volunteer firefighter in January 2007. This meant he was able to act as an entry-qualified responder for any type of emergency for which the station could be called.

As time went on, Lawrenson decided to apply for a lieutenant position and took the state of Alaska’s written fire officer exam.  This was no easy task as the exam requires more than 1,200 pages of reference material to be learned. He passed the exam and now leads a company of eight other volunteers.

“Serving in the firefighting profession is as socially rewarding as serving in the military as we absolutely trust in the abilities of our teammates to watch our back,” Lawrenson said. “I also am tasked with developing and delivering training, and I draw upon my Coast Guard experiences while training boarding officers and commercial fishermen in technical subjects from fisheries law enforcement to water survival to vessel stability.”

Lawrenson holds a master’s degree in naval architecture and has worked several positions such as a commercial safety examiner, fishing vessel regulations and human factor engineering at Sector Portland, Ore. He has been working as the fishing vessel safety coordinator for the Coast Guard in Alaska since 2006. His time on active duty and as a civilian spans more than two decades of service to the Coast Guard.

“My 24 years with the Coast Guard had been an excellent foundation for becoming a volunteer firefighter at the age of 44,” said Lawrenson. “We often joke about life after the Coast Guard, and what we want to do when we grow up. I figured out that I could be a fireman while still serving the Coast Guard.”

Lawrenson works hard to maintain his company of volunteer firefighters to be prepared for any emergency situation and provide technical expertise. Additionally, he is a maritime safety subject matter specialist for the fishing vessel industry and Coast Guard who ensures that everyone remains as safe as can be.

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