How to begin retirement after more than three decades responding to emergencies? By “doing all those things I didn’t have a chance to do because I had a full-time-plus job,” said Elaine Grabowski who, on Saturday, wrapped up 32 years with the Homer Volunteer Fire Department.
Monday morning, HVFD’s former Departmental Services Coordinator submitted her final time card. Tuesday she paid much-needed attention to her vehicle.
“It’s had the ‘check engine’ light on for the last three and a half months and now I have time to go to the mechanic,” she said, laughing.
Raised in New York, Grabowski and her now-husband Gary Kulesza came to Alaska in 1978, by way of Vermont and Colorado. An effort to relocate the state’s capital from Juneau to Willow was underway at the time, and the couple decided Wasilla, less than 40 miles from Willow, would put them near employment opportunities. Voters turned down the capital move, but then Grabowski and Kulesza visited Homer.
“We have the infamous story like thousands of other people who come around that bend at the top of Baycrest and go,
‘Oh my gosh. This is it,’” she said.
Moving to Homer in 1980, Grabowski waited tables at Best Western Bidarka Inn’s restaurant. When the HVFD offered EMT training, Kulesza signed up and then joined the department. Curious about the allure of responding to emergency calls, Grabowski followed suit.
Since then, she has been a firefighter, an EMT and, most recently, the Departmental Services Coordinator. Fire and emergency response has been the biggest part of her job, but Grabowski also has been active with HVFD’s public education outreach. She has recruited for firefighting and EMT classes, helped with vehicle and building maintenance, handled financial matters and participated in “all the normal day-to-day administrative duties that it takes to keep a business running,” she said. “No two days were alike.”
Interactions with others particularly stand out for Grabowski.
“Some calls are happy, some are not too happy, but the bottom line is that it’s all good because whatever the situation, the patient and the family or homeowner — whether fire or EMS, it doesn’t matter — is always better off because someone came to help,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a hug. Sometimes it’s just holding their hands. It’s often the smallest thing that makes all the difference in someone’s time of need.”
That difference can be seen as a result of her and HVFD’s efforts in area classrooms.
“We have a long list of those kinds of stories, where we go to a motor vehicle accident, open the door to access the kids in the back and all of a sudden the kids calm down because they know us, they’ve seen us in school. It’s pretty darn powerful,” she said.
Eric Pederson, principal of Paul Banks Elementary School, praised Grabowski and the HVFD’s relationship-building efforts.
“She and her department were fantastic with that,” Pederson said.
School-time safety lessons also spread beyond the classroom as Grabowski knows from stories like that of a youngster whose sister was standing too close to a campfire, her skirt caught on fire “and the kid told her to stop, drop and roll. You hear those peripheral stories and we know we’re doing our job.”
Grabowski’s efforts with neighboring responders also have been appreciated.
“She has a unique dedication and does it with such a pleasant, upbeat approach, whether it’s the public or whoever she’s dealing with,” said Bob Cicciarella, Kachemak Emergency Service Area chief.
Similarly, Bob Craig, Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area board president, said, “She’s very much appreciated and has been good at working out out relationships with the different departments.”
Grabowski’s commitment to emergency response has spread far beyond the southern Kenai Peninsula. In 2014, she received a Special Commendation Award from the Governor of Alaska’s Council on Emergency Medical Services: “In recognition and appreciation for constant passion and dedication of your many contributions in EMS throughout the Kenai Peninsula and State of Alaska.”
Bob Painter, HVFD chief since 1999, said he would miss Grabowski’s skillful interactions with others and her wealth of information from having been with the department so long. That loss is softened by the hiring of Jaclyn Arndt as the new Departmental Services Coordinator and by Grabowski’s decision to volunteer with HVFD.
“She’ll continue to volunteer as a responder after she takes a little time off to get her feet underneath her,” he said.
Summing up her 32 years with Homer Volunteer Fire Department, Grabowski called it “a tremendous privilege. I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of tremendously talented people and I’ve learned so much from them. … It’s been a humbling experience and I feel very fortunate.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.