When any noisy fire truck rolls through the streets of Anchorage, people tend to notice. Instead of getting out of the way for this one, people tend to honk and wave and smile. This is the Santa Claus Express, and its crew is trying to let the fun spread uncontained. Overseeing all is the one-and-only holly-jolly incident commander.
It’s a tradition that’s at least 30 years old, battalion chief Jim Dennis says. The International Association of Firefighters Local 1264 gives Santa a customized ride on an out-of-service rig. There’s a wooden sleigh on top with room for young visitors to sit with the boss and a slide for coming back down. Dennis says the Express rolls into all parts of Anchorage, but they try to give special emphasis to children who might have less under the tree.
Dennis, who was, shall we say, at the heart of Santa’s visit on Wednesday, December 19, says the Express brings back good memories. Joe Dennis, his dad, was also a firefighter and was known to suit up in red. Despite the familiar face behind the white beard, he was still impressed. “I knew it was my dad, but he’s a certified Santa’s helper.”
Dennis says this year he’ll do the same for his own kids.
On Wednesday the Express crew had some stops in Fairview in mind. First up was the facility for Abused Women’s Aid In Crisis. Santa gave hearty waves and loud greetings as the rig pulled into the lot. Just a few kids were on hand there, so each got as much time as they wished to talk to Santa and were allowed to go up the stairs and down the slide as many times as they wished. The firefighters, who are off-the-clock volunteers, had all the time in the world.
The rig then cut across Fairview and through the quiet of a zero-degree evening blaring Christmas carols in place of a siren. When it pulled into Park View Manor, an apartment building run by Alaska Housing Finance Corp., residents were drawn to the windows with cameras in hand.
Before long, a line formed as children and their parents streamed out of the building. Santa listened to wishes and took pictures with the youngsters. Some wanted a remote control helicopter, and others asked for world peace. Fireman Paul Miranda gave out hugs at the bottom of the slide.
After all the children had a chance to cycle through, the firemen talked about where to go next. Santa keeps an ambitious schedule this time of year, and the Express rolls out about twice a day for two weeks. Dennis says the reaction firemen get on this mission stands in stark contrast to the one they normally receive, and that’s motivating.
“You get to see kids in a situation where everybody’s smiling instead of when they’re having the worst day of their life,” he said.
About 50 firemen got involved this year, Dennis said.