A version of this story originally appeared at Coast Guard Alaska and was written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
On the evening of Nov. 5, an apartment building in downtown Juneau, Alaska, caught fire. The historic four-story structure was ablaze and the flames quickly grew, endangering nearby buildings in the surrounding area. The entire Capital City Fire/Rescue department responded and all available volunteer firefighters were called in to help contain the blaze.
One of these responders was Ken Lawrenson, volunteer firefighter and Coast Guard fishing vessel safety program coordinator. By night’s end, Lawrenson and fellow firefighters responded to the largest fire of his career.
“This was probably the biggest call of my career,” said Lawrenson. “We train hard, and this is the kind of fire downtown that we have been preparing for. We knew what needed to happen and we took those initial actions to get the building cleared out and set up that defensive perimeter so there wouldn’t be any spread of this fire.”
Lawrenson explained that one of the factors that contributed to the department’s success combating the fire was the lack of wind. Due to the topography of the Juneau snowfield, 60 to 70 mph winds are known to be generated in the Juneau area. These are called the Taku winds.
“One of the concerns here in Juneau, especially in the downtown area, is that the buildings are in such close proximity to one another,” said Lawrenson. “Controlling the exposure is just as important as putting the fire out in the building of origin.”
During this fire, Lawrenson’s role was to complete extensive searches of the building for victims of the fire. He led teams into the structure for fire extinguishment and he stood by the rapid intervention crew. His job within that crew was to rescue any firefighter in need.
“When you are battling a fire like this you are making decisions very rapidly with very little information,” said Rich Etheridge, Capital City Fire/Rescue fire chief. “You rely on your experience and training to help make those decisions. You are constantly running through your priorities, looking for potential hazards, preplanning your next five minutes, anticipating where the fire is going and what it is going to be doing next and finally taking care of your crews.”
According to Etheridge, Ken’s experience and leadership was a tremendous asset.
“We have groups of young firemen that have the drive and ability to charge in and do what even needs done,” said Etheridge. “Ken has the experience to know when to pull them back or limit them to keep everyone safe.”
In the end, the apartments were lost due to extensive damage. But, due to the training and professionalism of Lawrenson and others on scene, there were no deaths or civilian injuries and no other buildings were lost when the potential for collateral damage in the area was a real possibility.
To prepare for this kind of fire, Lawrenson and his team train regularly on the fundamentals of the incident command system, a tool used widely by disaster responders. They walk through high risk buildings to know the layouts and hazards. Also, the team utilizes their training center to simulate fires and weather in a physical fire or training run-throughs on computer-based simulators.
In his day-to-day Coast Guard duties Lawrenson, a 1984 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, oversees the 17th Coast Guard District commercial fishing vessel safety program. According to the National Transportation Safety Board Alaska had 5,673 registered commercial fishing vessels in 2008 and even more fishermen. Lawrenson works to keep these fishermen safe as he safeguards the $1.5 billion dollar industry.
Lawrenson’s efforts ensure the industry operates safely and fishermen are adhering to federal regulations governing commercial fishing vessel safety including the recent mandatory fishing vessel safety exam compliance requirement for vessel operating more than three miles beyond the territorial sea baseline. The number of commercial fishing vessel related deaths in Alaska has dropped significantly since the 1980s largely because of the efforts of the Coast Guard and examiners like Lawrenson.
“Luck favors the prepared and the conditions in Alaska are very unforgiving,” said Lawrenson.