Battalion Chief Randy Hopkins retired this week after 32 years with the Lake Oswego Fire Department.
"It's been an amazing career," he told The Review on Monday, his last day on the job. "I never know what to expect when I come in to work. We're trained to make any situation better — that's what we do."
Hopkins worked as a journeyman carpenter in the early 1980s, but he says a recession at the time led to a decrease in construction jobs. He already had emergency medical training thanks to previous work as a ski instructor, so he began studying fire science at Portland Community College in 1984 and later joined the LOFD as a student intern.
"I have to thank the City for taking a chance on a framer (carpenter) back in 1985," he says.
He passed the tests to become a firefighter later that year and was hired full-time by the department in 1986. The next 30 years were spent working his way through various ranks and positions in the LOFD: driver-engineer in 1989, lieutenant in 1995 and battalion chief in 2009. He spent two years as the battalion chief for the department's training division from 2012 to 2014.
Three decades of experience in one fire department gives Hopkins a clear sense of how the fire service has evolved during his tenure. The biggest changes, he says, have to do with the safety of the firefighters, with improvements such as fully enclosed cabs on fire engines.
"When I first started," he says, "we were still riding tailboards."
Another safety feature is interoperability. Fire departments today use standardized systems to communicate with each other and with other public services, but it's more than just the radio frequencies — even the gear has become standardized, Hopkins says. All fire departments now use compatible oxygen tanks and breathing apparatuses, which can save lives if one firefighter needs to provide air to someone from another department during an emergency.
Hopkins also highlights awareness of cancer risks as a step forward. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, he says, it's become more commonly known that burning buildings often produce carcinogenic residue. That understanding has led to better medical care and safer practices to minimize exposure, such as no longer storing turnouts (clothing worn during field work)
near the station's living quarters.
"Our turnouts never come into the firehouse anymore," he says, "because they figured out they can have carcinogens on them."
Hopkins says he's excited about a long list of projects and activities that he'll be able to pursue with his newfound free time, but he still describes his departure as "bittersweet" because of the bonds he shares with his fellow firefighters.
"The other family that I have here, I'll cherish forever," he says. "I'm still connected, and I will be for a long time."
Hopkins says he values his fire service career not only for providing him and his wife, Susie, with the stability to raise three children, but also for the sense of family among fire service staff that he says was a positive influence on his children as they grew up — so much so that his son, Colby, aspired to become a firefighter himself and joined the LOFD in 2012.
Hopkins also credits his wife for supporting him throughout his career's long shifts and varied schedules, adding that "she's been nothing but miraculous." He says the two plan to celebrate his retirement by learning to fly fish, which he "never really had time to do before," along with more time spent water- and snow-skiing, hunting and golfing.
Despite Hopkins' long career in Lake Oswego, he and his family lived in Sandy until recently, due in part to its proximity to Mount Hood — his children inherited their parents' passion for skiing, and he describes the five of them as "a skiing family."
With the children grown and retirement approaching, Hopkins and his wife moved to Lake Oswego about a year ago. They also own property in Prineville, which Hopkins says will become the site of another retirement project: putting his carpentry skills to work building a new house.
"I'm ready to get out of the rain," he says. "Now we're looking forward to that next chapter."