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Emergency Workers Volunteer to Enable a Safe, 2016 Polar Bear Jump

Volunteer and part-time sea otter James Mitchell. Photo R. Smeriglio

By Rick Smeriglio for SCN — About 150 costumed jumpers and their several hundred cheering fans came to Resurrection Bay’s port city to defeat cancer. At the orderly prompting of the Master of Ceremonies, teams of jumpers plunged into boat-harbor waters which had developed a thin skin of ice the night before. They all deserve hearty applause. Nor should the community forget the emergency medical and safety workers who had their back.

See the short slideshow near the bottom of this article.

Seward Fire Department has three employees and about ten times that many unpaid volunteers. With that group, come trained and equipped rescue swimmers and certified divers. Most have both certifications. Deputy Chief Rob Mathis says that rescue swimmers tread water (cold water) during the whole shebang, mainly to assist jumpers back to a dock ladder. As Mathis tells it, occasionally someone says, “I can’t swim.” At this year’s Polar Bear Jump, SFD had three rescue swimmers in the water and back-up on the docks as well as back-up in the water. Rescue swimmer Austin Chapman splashed into the water first.



Organizers of the Polar Bear Jump keep the emergency-medical base covered too. Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps had an ambulance backed in and ready to go at the top of D-float in the harbor. Mike Moore and Billy Agimua stood by in the cab, just in case. A contingent of SFD firefighters dressed in their yellow turnouts and fully equipped with stretchers and more, bustled along the docks at water’s edge. Behind the three rescue swimmers, swam four scuba divers from Alaska SeaLife Center. Amy Sherrow, an aquarist at the ASLC, seemed typical of the highly trained divers in the water, on duty just in case. She has made 82 dives this year and has credentials for advanced, open water dives down to 130 feet. She also volunteers as a firefighter for SFD and wears an emergency medical technician patch.

In referring to Seward firefighters, Moore of SVAC said, “We roll when they roll and they roll when we roll.”

When asked about mutual aid and cooperation, SFD Chief Eddie Athey said, “We have a great partnership with Alaska SeaLife Center divers and SVAC.”

Alaska Firefighter of the Year for 2015, Sean Corrigan, slipped into the water as a rescue swimmer again this year, as he has for the previous twenty. This year, he even wore a small video camera on his chest. Corrigan says that a rescue swimmer must have strong ability to swim, obviously. To receive rescue certification after training, he says that a swimmer has to tread water for time, tread water for time while wearing a weighted belt, recover a dummy victim from the water, and pass a test of dealing with a combative victim in the water. Deputy Chief Mathis says that he plans to work up a more rigorous training course for SFD rescue swimmers.


After 20 years of volunteering to tread water for an hour or two once a year in the harbor while assisting jumpers, Corrigan can tell stories. What odd things have people lost while jumping? An M-1 Garand rifle. What happened to it? Still on the bottom. Seen anything funny? Lots of wardrobe malfunctions. What about dumb costumes? Big Styrofoam shoes that float people feet up, head down. Corrigan has words for the wise jumper. Don’t wear things that you can’t easily pop out of or that will cover you or sink you in the water.

“I’m very proud to keep the community safe. Make it even more safe; that’s the key,” says a man who has, Sean Corrigan.

What might embolden people to leap into ice-cold salt water in January at 60 degrees latitude north? In-water rescue personnel who look like a pod of big friendly sea otters certainly provide some reassurance. A whole crew of identified “dock buddies” ready with information and clothing bags clearly helps.

Since 1986, Polar Bear Jumpers have come to Seward to raise funds and to take the anti-cancer plunge. Plunge again they did this year. Concern for their fellow humans seems to motivate them. An eight-person contingent from Providence Alaska Medical Center oncology unit came. A sleek, former Seward City Council member torpedoed through the water like a hungry seal. They jumped in groups, they jumped as singletons, and they even jumped flips into the water. They jumped plainly and they jumped in their delightfully goofy costumes. America’s premier, sea-going lifesavers, the US Coast Guard, jumped as well.

As described by a few numbers only, skewed toward safety, not just the thousands of dollars raised*, the 2016 Seward Polar Bear Jump went as follows. Two ambulance attendants came with an ambulance. At least four, small boat harbor employees showed up with a boat. Six, SLC scuba divers turned out. Seventeen, SFD volunteers came with much equipage. Eighteen, volunteer dock buddies assisted. As always, uniformed law enforcement reported for duty. For a small city with manageable debt and a balanced budget, not bad.


*Several days after the original publication of this article, the reporter learned from event organizers that the jump raised $120,000.


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