Juneau Color: Saving lives in the family tradition

Richard Duncan has been helping people in emergencies for 15 years

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2001

If you regain consciousness on the shore of the Mendenhall River and Richard Duncan is kneeling at your side, you've probably had a medical emergency.

That's the bad news. But the good news is that Flight Medic Duncan has served for 15 years with Capital City Fire & Rescue and knows just what to do.

Duncan's specialty is "doing things in abnormal situations" - on riverbanks or mountain ledges, starting an intravenous line in the dark. "The patient might be underneath something or trapped in a vehicle. We do basic emergency medicine, but we do it in the rain," he said.

Duncan, 38, began working with the Northstar Volunteer Fire Department while attending college in Fairbanks. He was a volunteer for his first five years with Capital City but now works a regular shift of one day (24 hours straight) on, two days off. He usually works out of the Glacier Station.

He thinks he came to his profession partly through familial examples.

"My dad (Dan Duncan of Soldotna) was a Juneau police officer. My grandfather (Loyal "Red" Clark) used to patrol the streets during World War II making sure lights were out."

One of his most memorable experiences was performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on someone who was clinically dead.

"But because a family member was able to start CPR before we got there, and we could continue it with drug therapy and defibrillation, we were able to bring him back. That's such a great feeling," Duncan said.

That case made him an active promoter of CPR classes. "It's such an easy thing to learn. Often when people call 911, we walk them through on the phone. But that's a terrible time to teach CPR," he said.

Another memorable experience came during a fire in a condominium at Spaulding Beach.

"It made a lasting impression on me because I had not been trained on what a flashover is, when the gases in the air get superheated and burst into flame. I was in the (unlighted) attic. Everything from my waist up went from pitch black to orange and the heat was tremendous," he said.

The flashover burned his face and the back of his neck.

"I got a little excited when my face mask got pushed up over my head as I tried to crawl down a walkway to escape. But then I calmed myself down and got through it," Duncan said.

During tourist season, Duncan responds via helicopter to calls from cruise ships. "The helicopter lands on the beach or a ball park in a village, and the ship brings the patient to us."

Duncan keeps so busy that any list of his accomplishments and volunteer efforts begins to sound like a resume.

He developed a cardio-pulmonary resuscitation program at Juneau-Douglas High School that helped more than 3,000 students receive their CPR cards. He speaks to student groups about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. He has placed in the top three more than 20 times in the state fire competition, with 11 first-place finishes. In 1991, he set the state record in the fire extinguisher category and has broken that record five times since. Ten years ago, he founded a Medics on Bikes program for the evening of July 3, to help people injured while enjoying the annual fireworks display.

Duncan is quick to acknowledge the help he had along the way. He applauds his mentors, including Galen Brevick of fire service training, retired firefighter and medic Mike Sturrock, and station master Jerry Godkin. "From each one, I took something new," he said.

Duncan is the former president of the state firefighters association and was involved with water rescue for years, but has cut back. "I have to limit myself or the dog growls when I get home," he said with a grin. His schedule is now two shifts on an ambulance, followed by one on a fire engine. He and his wife, Charise, have two daughters, Destiny, 7, and Noella, 5.

He sometimes uses vacation time to attend air medevac courses out of state. For example, in 2000 he went to Salt Lake City for four days. He also flew with Valley Flight for Life in Las Vegas. "Seeing how fast things can be done was such an eye-opener for me," he said.

Emergency medicine can be a stressful profession, but two factors keep Duncan going: "Just the reward of helping someone it's both a reward and an honor. The other thing is the family. Some people call them 'shift partners,' but really you are living with these people a third of your life."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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