Coast Guardsman saves lives on and off duty in Alaska


Ken Lawrenson is a volunteer firefighter in the Capital City Fire & Rescue department as well as a fishing vessel safety coordinator for the 17th Coast Guard District.

Ken Lawrenson, the Coast Guard 17th District commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator and a volunteer firefighter with Juneau’s Capital City Fire/Rescue, responded to the largest fire of his career at the Gastineau Apartments in downtown Juneau, Alaska, Monday.

Lawrenson graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1984, and he remained on active duty for 10 years. Now in his civilian life, he serves as the Coast Guard 17th District commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator. While not working for the Coast Guard Lawrenson protects his community as volunteer firefighter in Juneau.

On the evening of Monday Nov. 5, Lawrenson’s firefighting training skills were put to the test when the Gastineau Apartment building, an historic four story, multi-family structure in downtown Juneau caught fire.

The fire quickly grew, endangering nearby buildings in the surrounding area. The entire Capital City Fire/Rescue department responded and all of the available Juneau-area volunteer firefighters were called in to help contain the blaze.

“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 Lawenson. “Controlling the exposure is just as important as putting the fire out in the building of origin.”

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 mile-per-hour winds are known to be generated in the Juneau area. These are called the Taku winds.

“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.”

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 that was 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.”

Unfortunately in the end, the Gastineau Apartments were lost due to fire and water damage, but due to the training and professionalism of Lawrenson and the other firefighters on the scene, there were no deaths or civilian injuries and no other buildings were lost when the potential for collateral damage in the area is 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.

Recently Lawrenson and his team have talked to several fire chiefs from around the nation that are known for their expert leadership to teach the lessons they have learned over the years. 

In his day-to-day Coast Guard duties Lawrenson oversees the 17th 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. The fisheries are a$1.5 billion dollar industry according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and are part of the larger Alaska seafood industry worth an estimated $5.8 billion and 78,500 jobs.

Lawrenson’s efforts ensure that industry operates safely and fishermen are adhering to the federal regulation that govern 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.

Lawrenson added that the skills and values he learned in the Coast Guard play a part in his success as a volunteer firefighter.

“We share the same core values,” said Lawrenson. “Readiness, professionalism and service to the community.”

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