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Dillingham fire chief wins prestigious community service award

Courtesy of AARP

When there’s an emergency in Dillingham, the firefighters and EMTs who respond are typically volunteers. This month, the man who has helped coordinate those volunteers for decades has been recognized by a national organization for his volunteer work.

Norman “Koolie” Heyano has led Dillingham’s response team through all sorts of emergencies as volunteer fire chief over the past 25 years. 

This month, the nonprofit American Association of Retired Persons, AARP, granted Heyano the Andrus Award for Community Service, which is geared toward volunteers over 50 who have contributed to their communities, neighbors and programs. 


Mayor Alice Ruby nominated Heyano for the award because of his years of volunteer service and his dedication to his work – particularly since 2020. 


“It just was a perfect fit," she said. "Especially during the pandemic, when there have been only a few responders, and he’s certainly been one of those that’s been truly dedicated to making sure that emergency services were available.”

Over the years, Heyano has organized volunteers, driven ambulances to medical emergencies, and helped put out an actual dumpster fire at the Dillingham landfill


Credit Liam Wright/KDLG
Heyano and other first responders show a new ambulance to city officials in Dillingham. September 2017.

Heyano first joined the fire department in the 1970s, and he became active with the rescue squad around 1990, said Malcolm Wright, who worked as Heyano's assistant fire chief for two decades. Heyano was elected assistant fire chief in 1992, and became chief in 1996. He also worked a full-time job with the state Department of Transportation until he retired.


Wright said that even as other volunteers dropped off in recent years, Heyano continued to work as one of only a few people responding to ambulance calls in the community.


“He is still always very supportive of the volunteers themselves," Wright said. "He’s a great organizer in emergency situations.”

Heyano has also assisted in larger operations. When a plane carrying former Senator Ted Stevens and eight others crashed near Dillingham in 2010, Wright said Heyano drafted two helicopters to fly responders to the site. 


Ron Bowers
Heyano at the Dillingham landfill after a fire. January 2021.

“Because there was this important person on the plane, it bumped up to the highest levels, and got lots of bigger organizations involved, but nobody organizing at the ground level. Except for Koolie," Wright said. "[He] was the airport manager and had no particular authority but knew that he had resources who would jump on a helicopter and go out there. And he did that.”


When AARP Alaska presented Heyano with the award at a virtual event Thursday, he said he was honored to be recognized.


“I felt it important to continue serving Dillingham, especially during the COVID pandemic," he said. "But I could not do it without our other volunteers. And they should be thanked for doing all the years too. Thank you, from everybody.”

Heyano was one of five volunteers nominated for the award across the state. The other nominees were Stephanie Frackman, Bob Gorman, and Van Waggoner of Anchorage, and Jeff Sloss of Juneau.


Contact the author at or 907-842-2200.


Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.