Kyler Michlitsch’s birthday Sunday was a lot different than it would have been outside quarantine. It was just his immediate family at their home in Nikiski to celebrate.
Mom, Britney Baier, said there was no extended family, no friends and no fun outing to Jumpin’ Junction, as would normally be the case.
“Just us here at the house, just the family members. We had cake and presents but that was it. No other family members, no grandparents, no aunts and uncles and cousins, it was just us. It was sad, his grandma actually dropped the cake off on the front porch. She made his Garfield cake but he had to wave through the window and he couldn’t go out and hug her or anything,” Baier said.
Kyler just turned 4 and doesn’t have the life experience to expect much else. Baier said it was fine but a pretty quiet affair. That is until the Nikiski Fire Department showed up in a fire truck, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“They came by, they had the dog (Sparky the Fire Dog) and they had a fire hat to give him and a little stuffed animal. It was just really awesome. They sang happy birthday to him through speaker thing on the truck. It was special, it was just for him, they talked to him and said his name and happy birthday. I know he’ll remember it forever,” she said.
Global pandemics don’t make for fun birthdays. Nikiski is one of several fire departments in the state offering to make special days a little more special as people are hunkered down at home due to social distancing and travel mandates.
Nikiski Senior EMS Capt. Harrison Deveer said the department’s Deputy Chief Trent Burnett saw another department doing this and wanted to bring it to Nikiski. They posted it on Facebook this weekend and did their first three visits Sunday with two more Monday.
“We’ll drive by the house. We’re able to make it work, we’re able to stay within the 6 feet (of social distancing) of the birthday person, we’ll hand out a little Sparky model toy dog to the kid. And then we’ll have the lights on, the sirens on and help them celebrate. There was one occasion yesterday where I actually got on PA system and sang happy birthday,” Deveer said.
Singing over a loudspeaker is not something Deveer expected when getting into emergency response work but he said it’s all part of the job.
“You learn really quick when you start working at the department, especially in Nikiski, it’s a huge family affair and we like to be engaged,” he said. “It’s very important to us in creating that community relationship to where we get to interact with the community. And especially in times like this where everybody is so stressed and depressed, to bring a little bit of cheer to everyone is kind of what we do.”
The service is meant for kids, primarily ages who would get a kick out of a fire truck, but if the department has time they’ll go celebrate anyone in their service area. Deveer said they visited a 60-year-old gentleman Monday.
He said it’s primarily off-duty personnel coming in on their free time to make the birthday trips so staff on shift can be ready to respond to emergency calls. They don’t lack in volunteers, he said. It’s been fun for personnel, too.
“The other thing that makes it special is if there are lights and sirens, it’s usually an emergency. To show up where people are smiling is an amazing thing,” he said.
Down the road a bit, kids in Kenai are having their birthdays livened up, too. Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior said the department posted their birthday offer on Facebook over the weekend and already has 15 or so trips scheduled.
“We want to do the best we can for the kids. We know they’re having a difficult time and it’s just our way of kind of giving back to them a little bit. We respect everybody’s social distancing and their space but it gives us a chance to go by and have the lights on and come over the PA and tell happy birthday, or maybe give them balloon or something. We’re going to try to come up with ideas so we can still abide by all the mandates,” Prior said.
Sparky the Fire Dog has been particularly busy, riding along on trips in Nikiski and Kenai.
“We had a couple signs made up to put on the tower truck that say ‘happy birthday.’ So far, so good. The kids are loving it,” Prior said.
Prior and Deveer say call emergency volumes decreased when the COVID-19 mandates began as people are staying home and heeding requests not tax the medical system. Deveer said calls are down 10 to 15 percent in Nikiski. Prior say there was an initial lull but calls have increased since. EMS crews are still ready to respond.
“If you don’t have to go to the hospital, don’t go to keep yourself isolated as much as possible. But by all means, if you have a medical emergency, call 911 for sure,” Prior said.
The departments have contact information on their Facebook pages for requesting birthday visits. They need the kid’s name, age and birthday and a good call-back number. Try to make sure the road or driveway is not so sloppy the truck will get stuck. And keep in mind the fire truck might be a little late if they have to go on an emergency call but they’ll make every effort to stay in touch and get to the party as soon as possible.