I met with Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department’s (CVFRD) Fire Chief, Tim Benningfield, before the start of the fire department’s First Annual Installation & Awards Banquet to get a feel for the evening’s agenda and events.
He handed me a program, opened it and said while tapping his finger on the awards portion of the program, “Here is where it’s going to get good.”
Standing at the podium and addressing the gathering of members of the department, their families and guests, Chief Benningfield started by stressing how the CVFRD is one big family and this evening, on behalf of a grateful department he had the privilege to present some awards to several members of the department. When the time came to give the awards, Chief Benningfield reached back to a table and removed a blanket covering the awards and the recipient’s names. The awards were secret, and none of the members knew who would be receiving one. Starting with the Junior Firefighter Award he continued, Rookie of The Year, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Provider of the Year, Firefighter of The Year, Company Officer of The Year and so on pausing at each one to give a summary of that person’s contribution to the department. The chief then picked up the last plaque on the table. He looked at it and smiled. Returning his gaze to the audience, while looking over his glasses, he said, “This person was nominated by the 15 officers of the department and selected by the captains and the Assistant Chiefs. This last award is Member of The Year.” Continuing with a clue, “This person joined the department in November of 2017.” He followed up with how everyone in the department likes this person, the contributions made and the selfless hours they’d volunteered. Heads began to look toward the back of the room. “The award recipient for Member of The Year is… Molly Swanson,” said the Chief. Molly walked forward with an expression of surprise on her face, and loud applause accompanied her to the podium.
Later, Molly shared, “I was very honored to receive the award but also very humbled.” When talking about the award from that evening, Molly said, “I was very surprised. When Chief started giving a little bit of the back story, people started turning and looking at me. I got pretty red. Yes, I was very surprised.” It was apparent while talking to Molly she was, truly humbled by receiving this honor, and she was quick to give thanks to fellow firefighters and medics. “You can’t be the Member of the Year without the other people supporting you. Honestly, everyone is member of the year. Everyone is putting in hard work. The difficult part is, I want everyone to be recognized for all the work they are doing,” said Molly. With sincerity in her tone, Molly continued, “I very much appreciate the team and the people helping me get to where I am. The training the department has put into me and the other members of the department. Everyone sacrifices a lot, and it’s really nice when you get that appreciation back. But, that’s not what we’re here for; we’re just doing our job.”
While growing up, both Molly’s older sister and brother were volunteers at the CVFRD, and she knew from a young age she wanted to do the same. “My sister worked here when she was about 25. I would come to the station when I was younger growing up, and I got to see all the things they do. And, I really liked the people here, it was just like having a second family. I knew that I would like to work here when I got to that point in my life as well. I wanted to go through the emergency medical technician (EMT) classes and be able to do what she did as well. Plus, my older brother worked here as well,” related Molly.
Molly comes from a large family; she has five brothers and sisters. The family frequently moved while she was growing up as they were a Coast Guard family. She has lived in Kodiak, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Hawaii. Molly, along with all her siblings, was homeschooled and now lives in Wasilla and is 21 years old.
Always Wanted to be a Nurse
Wanting to help people is in Molly’s DNA. From early on Molly has always wanted to be a nurse. Not only has the CVFRD help fulfill that desire, it has also helped prepare her for a career in nursing. Currently, Molly is a nursing student at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA). Molly explained, “The medical field has always fascinated me. There is something about the human body. It’s just so incredible. I also knew I wanted to be a nurse from a young age. Being able to get experience, especially in an emergency setting, is really a benefit even before starting nursing school. Now I have some real life experience to fall back on and not just the college setting of nursing school.” Molly obtained her EMT I at Mat-Su College and later her EMT II and III at UAA. Although her first love is on the medical side of things at the CVFRD, she also has enjoyed firefighting as well.
Being a Firefighter
Although Molly’s career is focused on being a medic and a nurse, she enjoys being a firefighter. Molly explained it this way, “I love the medical side that’s why I want to be a nurse, but I just have so much fun with the fire side.” Through her training with the CVFRD, she has earned her a Basic Firefighter certificate. Further explaining with a bit of laughter in her voice, “I’m always bugging someone to go out back to do some training. We have cars in the back lot, and we can go back there and do some training like cut a car apart. It’s a lot of fun. For me, it’s kinda like a stress relief.”
Training at the CVFRD is taken very seriously, and both medical and firefighting training is conducted regularly during the week and on weekends for all the volunteers. To emphasize the point, Molly put it this way, “I think that one of the things that impresses me most about our firefighters doing that main training is that they are so creative in how they have gotten patients out of cars. Sometimes taking the entire roof off a car that’s on its side and unstable. The car has to be stabilized while making sure the patient is not going to fall when something has to be moved. Especially during a rollover, the patient could have a spinal injury. The most important thing is the patient.”
With a somber and deliberate tone in her voice, Molly responded to the most challenging part of the job. “We’re here to save people. I think the most challenging thing is when we can’t. And, that’s extremely difficult on every person here at the department. It never gets any easier. Everyone has their own way of dealing with those situations. Whether it is a fatal car accident or someone that has had a cardiac arrest. Sometimes, we’ve done all we can and just could not get them back. We always try and get there as fast as we can. But, there are times when it’s hard to just get to them. Whether that’s on a back trail somewhere when we can’t take the trucks down,” her voice trailing off. Continuing, “That’s the hard part. Realizing someone needs you and you can’t get to them in time or that you just couldn’t save somebody.” Finishing her thought, “I think you ask any first responder that, they would tell you that’s the most challenging part of the job, probably.”
Molly is expecting to graduate from UAA in December 2019. Then she must take and pass her nursing board exam. When that is completed, she has a goal to be a flight nurse. But first, she would like to work in a hospital Emergency Department or Intensive Care Unit to get some critical care nursing experience. She feels it will be a good experience to help prepare her to be a flight nurse. Molly explained, “My goal in nursing is to become a flight nurse. That’s something I’ve been very passionate about. We have people here at the fire department that have worked as a flight medic, and they always have such interesting stories. It’s never the same thing every day. I’ve always loved flying, and I think it will work really well with my background, especially with my work here at the Chugiak Fire Department.”
The Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department holds true to the motto painted on the sides of the department fire engines and vehicles, “All Volunteer, All the Time.” Chief Benningfield has good reason to be very proud of the men and women of CVFRD, and all of us should be too.