FAIRBANKS - A weeklong conference is giving the next generation of first responders in Alaska a preview of possible careers in law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical care.
Disaster response is also part of the schedule at the Alaska Emergency Preparedness Youth Explorer Conference in Fairbanks that started last Friday.
The conference is in its second year and brings together youths between 14 and 21 years old to get a good look at the daily reality of careers dealing with emergency situations.
"So many people get out of high school or college and pick a career without having had a chance to try it out. This gives them a chance," said Lorna Weese, executive director of the Fairbanks nonprofit Volunteers in Policing.
Weese said she founded the conference because being an Explorer as an early teen shaped her career and her life.
"It opened so many doors for me. I ended up on the U.S. pistol team and went to the Olympic trials. I was a hostage negotiator when I was employed as a dispatcher at the Fairbanks Police Department," she said.
"When my friends were getting into other things, I was spending my weekends riding around with police officers and dusting for fingerprints," Weese said.
This year, there are 52 students who come from 10 different communities, including Butte, Valdez, Barrow, Wainwright, the Matanuska Valley and Fairbanks. The youths are part of the Explorer program, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America.
Kitty Panik, 18, is a volunteer firefighter in Wainwright who already has emergency trauma technician certification, is going after her emergency medical treatment-2 certification and wants to be a paramedic.
"I've been wanting to become an ambulance responder since middle school," she said. "Fire is fun, but I love the medical part."
The program focuses on cultivating the emergency responders of the future.
"Around Alaska, it's not a matter of if a disaster will happen, it's a matter of when," said Robert Tanner, outreach coordinator for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the state agency for managing emergencies.
He cited the 6.7-magnitude earthquake and aftershocks in the Aleutian Islands last weekend.
Adults don't just decide to be emergency responders on a whim, Tanner said.
"You have to start with kids. It takes molding, encouraging, overcoming fear, developing a love of adrenaline," he said.