Call it trial by water.
Brookings Fire Rescue Capt. Jeff Lee was hired from the ranks of the fire department last month to become a paid captain and training officer andndash; the same day as the torrential rainstorm struck the Oregon coast.
He and the other firefighters spent the next several days sandbagging, clearing ditches, directing traffic, diverting water andndash; everything but fighting fires. In the middle of it all, a call came in for a flooded and collapsed ceiling at the Rush Surgery Center.
Lee kind of has a history of starting new jobs with a bang.
He joined the local fire department in 2005 and after a few years of working up the ranks, was promoted to captain. That night, the Brookings Inn started fire andndash; and still remains an unsolved case.
"My very first weekend I was on duty," he said. "And it was my birthday."
"And it was the night of the Christmas party," interjected
Lee hails from Galt, Calif., and grew up in a fire and emergency medical services (EMS) family. While there, he worked as a volunteer wildland firefighter for seven years and only quit when his wife was relocated to Las Vegas with her job.
But there were no volunteer departments in Sin City, and after five years out of the industry, he moved to Brookings and back into the field.
"It's the same thing that's exciting about it now," Lee said, when asked why he returned to firefighting. "I just like doing it. I like helping people and doing what a lot of people can't do andndash; or want to do. And I've been here ever since."
In Oregon, a new firefighter must attend trainings and drills to accumulate enough experience to become a Firefighter I. From there, they can obtain additional training to get Firefighter II certification andndash; a level Lee has attained.
He was a lieutenant for two years and a volunteer captain for the past four. With the new configuration with the city's police and fire departments, Lee now serves as Operations Chief Jim Watson's right-hand man. He was hired from a field of eight applicants andndash; of which three were volunteers with the local department andndash; and now works alongside Capt. Tom Kerr, who supervises the cadre of volunteers.
Lee has since revamped some of the fire department's training and has been instrumental in creating new scenarios for firefighter drills.
One is a "black-out" drill in which firefighters in full turnout gear are outfitted so they can't see and set loose to find their way through a maze Lee creates in KidTown. The maze is different every time and sometimes requires firefighters to remove their air tanks to squeeze through tight spots.
The training simulates possible scenarios firefighters could experience in "live" fires. And although trainees know they aren't in a dangerous situation at KidTown, they still know they have to get through the maze andndash; before their air runs out.
"It's a confidence course," Watson said. "You know you're going to get into tight spots and you need to get out."
Lee is also taken the lead on rescue extrication and rope techniques in hopes of improving skills within the department for ocean cliff and other angle rescues.
And as a certified National Fire Protection Association instructor, he hopes to make inroads with Southwestern Oregon Community College to get more fire and EMS classes offered there and possibly reinstate a Firefighter I academy in the county.
That's part of the reason he landed this job, Wilson said.
"He knows our system," he said. "He knows our people. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of people. It was a seamless hire."
Lee, visibly exhausted from two fires this week, and trying to select floor tile colors for the construction going on in the department, said he hasn't even thought about further training modules.
And eventually, he hopes to become fire chief, as the department traditionally hires from the volunteer ranks.
"That's pretty much the plan," he said, smiling. "It's an adrenaline rush, from the time the pager goes off until the call ends. Every day is an adventure."