Living the dream: Bigfork native joins ALERT air ambulance crew
ALERT air ambulance flight paramedic Fletcher Anderson is pictured in his hometown of Bigfork. Mackenzie Reiss/Bigfork Eagle
Bigfork Eagle | June 9, 2021 2:30 AM
Fletcher Anderson’s first experience with ALERT, an air ambulance operated by Logan Health, occurred at just 7 years old when he watched as one of the iconic red choppers landed in front of his house. As he grew older, his run-ins with ALERT became more frequent.
As a ski patroller on Blacktail Mountain and paramedic with Bigfork Fire Department, he’s handed over numerous patients to ALERT’s team of emergency care providers. He felt a sense of relief when the choppers landed on-scene. And as he watched them take off into the sky, hospital-bound, he knew those patients were in good hands.
And as of this April, Anderson officially joined their ranks, fulfilling his dream of becoming a flight medic. It wasn’t a hope he’d always had in mind. Before thoughts of flight suits and high-level medical care entered the picture, his aspirations were centered around skiing.
Anderson left his native Bigfork for Denver where he was a bartender and sold car stereos to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t living a life necessarily, I was working a life. And I hadn’t been home for Christmas or Thanksgiving for three years straight,” Anderson recalled. “When I moved back home from Denver I decided to go skiing, basically.”
He began slinging drinks at the Garden Bar during the summer months to pay for his skiing habit over the winter and also took a job as a liftie on Blacktail Mountain. Ski patrol was the next logical step and after his first call, Anderson didn’t look back.
“My first call got me hooked. It was a traumatic injury where an individual hit a tree and basically broke everything,” he said, noting the injured skier was a child and things weren’t looking good.
Thankfully, the child survived, “which was amazing,” he added.
He continued to advance his medical training over the next several years on the mountain, eventually returning to school at age 36 to get his paramedic’s license, all while rising through the ranks, ultimately landing the role of patrol director, which he held for five years.
“With patrol, it’s just maintaining mountain operations and trying to keep it as safe as you can — and you’re there when the unfortunate happens,” Anderson explained.
He enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the job — how he and the other patrollers would communicate, gather the necessary equipment and safely transport their patients to the next level of care.
“It feels good inside for one thing and the other thing is you're able to make an impact on someone’s life,” he said.
And not just during the big calls; sometimes that difference is made helping a young, new skier getting down Cold Camp in one piece.
“Perhaps it doesn't discourage them from skiing again, they can see that, ‘hey this isn’t too bad, this is fun,’” Anderson said.
The sport of skiing is certainly a passion of his. Over the last 15 years, Anderson estimates he’s logged a staggering 1,500 days on snow — about 100 days of skiing each season.
“Some people do it for exercise, some people do it for socialization, I just enjoy skiing. I don’t know how to explain it other than that,” Anderson said.
But as much as he loved being on snow, the time came for Anderson to move on. He grew tired of what he calls “the perpetual eddy of life” that he found himself in; the cycle of summers spent bartending, saving tips to live off later and patrolling in the winter months.
“I decided I needed something else,” he said.
In June 2019, he signed on full time as a paramedic with Bigfork Fire. Anderson was the third generation to be involved with the department after his grandfather, father and uncle.
“It was an honor in its own sense,” he said.
The job opened up a new set of challenges.On the mountain he had a crew of around half a dozen or more, but in the ambulance, just two responders were paged out on call. Bigfork Fire averages 1,000 calls a year, Anderson said, but on a summer day they might run as many as eight or nine calls in a single 24-hour shift. One of his first calls was especially tough. He responded to an accident where a teenage girl had struck a tree.
“They were using spreaders and cutters to try to get her out of there. We were able to get her out,” Anderson said. “She was unconscious and breathing.”
Unfortunately, the girl did not survive.
“You do everything you can and her ultimate outcome wasn't what you'd hoped for,” he said. “You have to know you did everything you possibly could to the best of your ability to help these people and you win some, you lose some. It’s just the nature of it. You carry on and you take away from [what you learned] for the next time.”
It’s a philosophy that will carry him well into the next stage of his career as a flight medic where continuous learning, Anderson said, is an essential part of the job.
“You’ve gotta absorb everything that comes your way and learn from it. I've got a really steep climb ahead of me but it’s been rewarding so far,” he said. “I didn't ever think I was going to be in EMS — some things in life choose you. It’s still kind of unreal to me …. Don't give up on what you're trying to do with your life. Find a way to do it. Make someday today.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org