Mitch Flynn, Chief of the Steese Volunteer Fire Department, will retire Friday after 42 years of service. Flynn recently met with the News-Miner at the department’s Farmers Loop station to reflect on the changes he had seen during his long career.
Flynn’s father brought his family to Fairbanks in October 1966 when he was stationed at Fort Wainwright. Flynn attended grade school here, a time he remembers fondly.
“You know, it was just a neat time and Fairbanks was just a great place to live and grow up. It was all pre-pipeline days, and I had just the best childhood. Nothing but good memories,” Flynn said.
The family moved in 1970 after his dad was reassigned to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, but Flynn returned in 1974 and lived with family friends so he could attend Lathrop High School. His family eventually returned to Fairbanks and his father took a job with the postal service after retiring from the military.
Flynn joined the University Fire Department in January 1977. He left the job after 25 years and moved to Yakima, Washington, in 2002 after he was offered a job selling fire fighting apparatus there. He returned to Fairbanks 10 months later.
“I realized early on I wasn’t cut out to be a sales person. They called in the spring of ‘03 and offered this job. Well, I was like a motor running full bore without a load, and I needed a load. A motor without a load will come apart,” Flynn said.
At 62, Flynn looks and moves like a much younger man and still enjoys his job. Nonetheless, he feels it’s time to move on.
“At my age it’s a little bit hard to be in this line of work, and get up in the middle of the night and respond to calls. I just can’t do it to the degree that I want, and feel like I should. I’m slower and it’s harder to get things accomplished. I think the taxpayers are owed 100%, and if I can’t be 100%, then it’s time to move on.”
Steese Volunteer is one of five fire service areas in the borough, with the others being Chena Goldstream, Ester, North Star and University. Each service is a nonprofit organization that independently contracts to the North Star Borough to provide fire and emergency medical services to areas in which residents have elected to pay taxes for their establishment.
Flynn prides himself on never asking for a tax increase to fund the department’s three stations.
“We’re the second lowest fire service area, mil rate-wise, of the five fire service areas in the borough, and quite a bit under two of them,” Flynn said.
The taxes fund the running of the station and pay the salaries of the EMS and full-time employees of the department. The volunteers “pick up a big load” and, as the title implies, work for free. In return they receive training and learn a valuable skill they can later parlay into a paid position with municipal fire departments. Some live at the station full time and are on full-ride scholarships, while others, such as those with domestic partners and children, maintain their own homes and come in to work during their time off from their regular jobs. Each volunteer is required to work 25 hours a month.
Flynn said safety standards have changed drastically during his more than four decades on the job.
“We get far better training today. We’re far better equipped. We have much better turnouts and breathing apparatus. You know, back when I first started, if somebody was hurt or killed in the fire service, they were eulogized as being a hero and that was that. But now everything gets studied and investigated as to why, so that it doesn’t happen again,” Flynn said.
Though increased safety is a obviously a good thing in such a dangerous profession, Flynn worries that “the pendulum has swung too far,” in the opposite direction.
“It’s something I’m concerned about — our officers being held liable for decisions they made in a split second. The challenges with fire departments today is with not having enough administrators to handle all of the rules coming down on them. The firefighters are being trained properly, equipped properly, they’re doing their job well,” Flynn said. “The administration of all that is just what’s getting tougher. It’s more paperwork, it’s the reports, the training programs, the time spent. Their are new regulations that come out every year.”
Even though safety standards have improved, changes in building techniques and the materials used in household furnishings have created a more dangerous environment for fighfighters to work in. Lightweight roof trusses joined with metal gussets collapse quickly in a fire. Plywood has been replaced by less-expensive oriented strand board, which is made of chunks of wood glued together and compressed. The heat from a fire melts the glue, the board collapses and the glue adds to the fire. Modern upholstery fabric and furniture contain large amounts of carcinogens, increasing the rate of cancer in firefighters.
“The change since the 1980s to today, is that fires developed slower back then and were less toxic. Now they develop faster, so you can have a fully involved floor or structure much quicker,” Flynn said. “We had more time to pull lines, put water on the fire than what we do now. But everything’s driven by the dollar. It’s cheaper to buy things from China than it is to manufacture here. Why don’t we manufacture things here? Because of mandated OSHA guidelines, health insurance and all of that. They’re good things, but where’s the balance? If I had the answer, then I’d be president.”
Despite the drawbacks, Flynn said he still recommends the field to young people.
“It’s just a great thing to work with volunteers that want to work and want to learn, and they just soak up what you tell them. I encourage them if they have the right attitude and desire to serve the public, if they have a servant’s heart and want to help people and recognize that there is sacrifice that takes place. I would just encourage them to be educated and do their part in staying healthy.”
Flynn also urges people from all walks of life to get involved with their fire service areas in other ways.
“All of these local fire service areas need people to step up and serve on the commissions and boards. That’s who I answer to, and it’s really a good system. You learn a lot by being on these boards and it’s a great way to volunteer. It’s quite interesting,” Flynn said.
The road ahead
Flynn and his wife, Melody — who was born in Anchorage and married Flynn in 1983 — would like to stay in Fairbanks but aren’t sure if they’ll be able to. All four of their parents still live here and would like to remain as well.
“I have mixed feelings about stuff, the state finances and everything. The state looks at imposing income tax, at wanting to take away the PFD, and then they want to take away the $100,000 tax exemption from seniors. Well that’s a triple whammy on retired people, and they’re almost forcing them out of state,” Flynn said. “We can’t really afford to stay here and travel the way we want, but we sure love Fairbanks. We’ll put the hard decision off for a year or two.”
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.