Haines firefighter and EMT Al Badgley is retiring from the fire department after nearly 35 years. Badgley’s official title is training officer, but people in town know him as Fireman Al. His last day on the job is Friday.
Badgley didn’t grow up wanting to fight fires.
“I was a outdoors person, I wanted to be a biologist and go out in the sticks and count fish, do something with animals,” Badgley said.
He followed that passion to Haines in 1980 to work with Alaska Fish & Game. But then something unexpected happened. Shortly after moving to Haines, he lit a fire in his cabin’s woodstove to warm the place up.
“And the house really warmed up because it burnt completely down,” Badgley said. “So that kind of changed my whole outlook on life and started a 27-year career.”
Badgley said watching firefighters try to save his home and then seeing the way people supported him afterward made an impact.
“Watching your cabin burn down, watching people come to try to help out. The community support after your cabin burned down, it’s like wow this is pretty neat to see people come and support a person who lost everything.”
After that, he joined the fire department as a volunteer. That was in April of 1981.
“May of ’81, the [Fort Seward] Barracks burnt down, which is probably the biggest fire we’ve had in Haines in 40 years. I was there 14 hours on that fire.”
Badgley continued volunteering with the fire department, and seven years later he was hired as a training officer– one of just two paid jobs in the department that’s made up mostly of volunteers. He’s been in that job now for 27 years. He says the thing he enjoys most is helping make people’s lives better, and sometimes even saving lives.
“I guess probably one of the biggest things that I look at is there are a few people I’ve seen that actually die and then as a team we work together and they are now alive. I mean, they had no heartbeat, CPR in progress. And the next thing you know, many years later, I see that person and it’s kind of amazing. You think of their family, their children. It’s a big experience that’s kind of overwhelming.”
Badgley says serving that role in a small town can be both rewarding and difficult. He says more than half the patients he sees on ambulance calls are people he knows.
Many times I’ll know a patient by their address, their car, something of that nature. And I’ll say wow, this person’s got a little kid. Or this kid just came in and did my fire prevention class or something like that. So it’s really challenging because you know that person and you know their family and you’re doing what you can to help them. And in certain situations, there’s nothing you can do.”
He says the days where you see a tragedy that you can do nothing to change are the hardest.
“Sometimes you just have to go home and say, ‘tomorrow’s gotta be a better day.'”
Badgley says his family has been there for him through the challenges of his job.
“My wife and family have put up with a lot with me being gone. I’ve missed birthdays, I’ve missed…actually I missed my proposal to my wife the first time because of an ambulance call.”
That was back when Badgley was still a volunteer with the department. He was called to help a person who had fallen off Lutak dock, and he had to put the dinner and proposal he had planned aside. But it turned out okay. A week later when he proposed, his wife said yes.
“There’s some sacrifices involved. You know, I’ve had to miss games that my kids have played basketball, I almost missed being the best man at a wedding. So there are things that occur that are challenging. And that’s something that each volunteer has to make up their mind about what they want to put in.”
Quite a few people in Haines have decided they do want to put time into the volunteer fire department. Badgley says there are about 20 people on the ambulance crew and about 30 on the fire crew. He says that’s the most he’s seen at the department in 30 years.
“You know, people like to help people. And people want to be involved in helping make people’s lives better,” Badgley said.
That power to make a difference is what he enjoys most about being a firefighter and EMT.
“Seeing families reunited with a loved one that they thought they may never see again is a highlight. Having people come up to you and say ‘thank you’ makes a big deal for all of us.”
Badgley will continue volunteering with the fire department after retirement. But he also plans to go on long trips to see his children, explore other parts of Alaska, maybe work as a deckhand, and get involved in other kinds of volunteering in Haines.
Haines Mayor Jan Hill has proclaimed July 17, Fireman Al’s last day at work, Al Badgley Day.