End of an era: Last of three firefighters from now defunct district hang up their helmets
A chapter in Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue's history is coming to a close with the retirement of the last Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District firefighters.
Battalion Chief Jeff Cooper, Capt. Virgil Hall and Lt. Daniel O'Grady served with the Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District when it merged with Washington County Fire District 1 in 1989 to form Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
At the time, the Tualatin Rural service area included Tualatin, Sherwood, Tigard, King City, Durham, Rivergrove, Wilsonville, and unincorporated areas in Washington and Clackamas counties.
A great deal has changed in the nearly three decades since TVF&R's beginning, and the three Tualatin Rural originals had frontline positions allowing them to watch the area's transformation and experience the evolution of the fire district.
They each took time to share their perspective of the early days of the district as Tualatin Rural and District 1 firefighters combined forces and reflected on their time responding to emergency calls in the communities TVF&R serves.
"We started training together and learning new ways of doing things while sizing one another up," recalled O'Grady, who was hired as a firefighter in April 1985.
"It didn't take long for the camaraderie to start meshing," added Cooper, who served with the Woodburn Fire Department before joining Tualatin Rural's ranks in July 1980. "Firefighters are firefighters."
Two things firefighters from the founding districts shared were a desire to help people in the community and an appreciation for having a job in the fire service during uncertain times.
"In the '80s, Oregon was in a recession, and no one was hiring," said Hall, who was one of four firefighters hired by Tualatin Rural in April 1983. "You would score well on the test to become a firefighter and never get a call. If you were one of the lucky ones to get a call, you pounced on the job.
"We were a very small district and knew each other. We were a tight-knit group."
In the early days, firefighters worked on two- or three-person truck companies rather than the four-person crews TVF&R has today. Firefighters also performed fire inspections of area businesses completed today by deputy fire marshals and tested hydrants.
With new development and steady population growth in the area came increases in service demands that prompted the district to shift some firefighter responsibilities.
"The biggest change we saw was the shear growth of the area and infill of land," O'Grady said. "I grew up in Milwaukie, and it took forever to get out here. There were long stretches of darkness on the way to Sherwood."
Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin were "sleepy towns," Hall added.
The growth of the area prompted mixed emotions, Cooper said. "It was hard to see some of the most fertile farmland turned over, paved and built upon. We saw so many little farms go away as houses were planted."
The fire service itself grew and adapted right along with the communities.
"We were still riding tailboard in Tualatin Rural at the time of the merger," recalled O'Grady. "It was fun, and people always waved as we drove by."
While riding in the back of the engine had its charm, being out in the open exposed to the elements while traveling to calls was less than ideal.
"When we merged, we received nicer apparatus and safety equipment," O'Grady noted.
"Back in the day," added Cooper, "there was no hearing or eye protection, no medical gloves or face masks, no system in place to document exposures to bodily fluids, and we performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"On the fire side, we had heavier, steel self-contained breathing apparatus and had to share air masks. We had one portable radio per unit for communication. There was no organized direction for an incident and no accountability in place to track who was on scene."
The merger improved personal protection, scene organization and safety practices and equipment. In time, the addition of support staff, expanded services and rescue teams, ongoing training and continued community support enhanced efficiencies.
As the last of the Tualatin Rural firefighters edge toward their final duty shifts, they admit it will be hard to let this chapter in their professional life come to a close.
"I'm going to miss the people," said Hall, who is set to work his last shift in April. "It's going to be a big transition. Most of my life I've been a firefighter."
He said he still wakes up looking forward to going to work, seeing his crew at Somerset Station 64 and driving to calls wondering what his crew will find.
"It's been immensely rewarding," Hall said. "I've witnessed great acts of compassion and heroism from people. It has affirmed my hope in people and in the resiliency of human beings every day. The things I've seen people walk away from are more impressive than what I can express. I feel enormously lucky to be a firefighter."
Cooper, who also ends his fire service career in April, agreed. "The fire service offered the highest of highs and lowest of lows — from the exhilarating excitement that comes from delivering babies to seeing the saddest things happen to people that don't make any sense and everything in between. I've never had one day where I have not appreciated my job. I've had an amazing ride."
O'Grady worked his final shift at Tualatin Station 34 on Dec. 30, 2016.
"It's hard to know where 31 years went," he said. "I'm fortunate that I had the opportunity to work for a lot of great people. It's been an honor to serve and help people in this community. I'm going to miss this. I really am."