Vacant Juneau fire marshal position likely to remain unfilled amid budget uncertainty

Deputy Fire Marshal Sven Pearson (Photo by Lance Nesbitt/Courtesy of City and Borough of Juneau)

Municipalities and states are facing a wildly uncertain and unpredictable future. Even with federal aid, vacant positions may go unfilled, services may be cut, and some employees could be furloughed or laid off as budgets shrink dramatically.

In Juneau, a fire department employee just retired. That will likely leave his former supervisor to do all the work himself for the foreseeable future.

That retiring employee, Sven Pearson, remembers getting hooked in his twenties.

Within hours of seeing a Juneau newspaper ad asking for volunteer firefighters, he and a buddy were donning turnout gear and air packs. They entered a burning trailer during a training exercise, but they had absolutely no training whatsoever.

“Obviously, we do not do that anymore. Every once in a while, when I share that story with some of the younger folks who join the department, their eyes bug out and they just can’t believe it,” Pearson laughs.

A student investigator sifts through debris and checks the underside of a carpet for a possible accelerant during a fire investigator training exercise at Juneau’s Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center in 2017. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
A student investigator sifts through debris and checks the underside of a carpet for a possible accelerant during a fire investigator training exercise at Juneau’s Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center in 2017. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

When Pearson served as a volunteer firefighter, he noticed other firefighters poking through the rubble after the fire was put out.

“It just fascinated me, the whole idea that they were putting together this puzzle of how the fire started and what happened,” Pearson said.

So, he took extra training and later got the deputy fire marshal’s job under Fire Marshal Dan Jager.

Pearson retired at the beginning of May after 11 years with the fire marshal’s office. He started as a volunteer firefighter in 1988.

Now, Jager won’t have a second set of eyes to help him out at a fire scene.

But the job isn’t always about investigating fires.

Sometimes it’s talking to schoolchildren about fire safety or helping the community respond to big emergencies, like the current pandemic.

Fire marshals also spend a lot of their time reviewing construction plans and building permits for commercial and multi-family residential buildings.

Are there enough emergency exits and are the sprinklers set up right? Is there a fire hydrant nearby? Enough room for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to pull in out front? That’s the sort of thing they check in plans or building permits.

They also do walk-through inspections to make sure buildings stay up to fire code.

Capital City Fire/Rescue spent the night of Nov. 5, 2012 fighting a blaze at the Gastineau Apartments in downtown Juneau. The building was a total loss.
Capital City Fire/Rescue spent the night of Nov. 5, 2012 fighting a blaze at the Gastineau Apartments in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Pearson remembers working with the owners of the Gastineau Apartments to make sure that all the inside fire doors worked properly. That was just weeks before the big fire that gutted the building in 2012.

“After the fire, when we did our investigation and we walked through it, it was a night and day difference,” Pearson said. “When you opened up that door, we looked right into the fire debris. On the other side of that door, there was a hallway and there was a little bit of smoke damage. But, for the most part, everybody was able to evacuate.”

Pearson said he realized right then how their work can make a difference.

With Pearson gone, Jager will have to review as many as 150 building plans and do 400 inspections each year. With the pandemic, those are done differently.

“We’ve changed the way we do some of our inspections,” Jager said. “Like for child care licensing, we’ve used FaceTime with the home providers to eliminate us having to go in their home and having any kind of potential exposure or contact concern.”

With the city facing a major budget shortfall and uncertainty about use of federal CARES Act relief funds, City Manager Rorie Watt doesn’t expect the now-vacant deputy fire marshal position will be funded for next year.

He said Assembly members are drafting a budget based on their priority for each city service.

“The ones that are on the lower level of priority tend to be discretionary — recreation facilities, library, parks, that kind of thing,” Watt said. “So, I do not expect cuts to the traditional police and fire services. But I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on all parts of the city.”

Watt expects commercial construction in Juneau to be down again this year. So, Jager may not have a huge workload for building plans and permit reviews after all.

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