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UCFD #1 Hot Seat: Lee Watson

It’s time for the twenty-second edition of the UCFD #1 Hot Seat. The Hot Seat provides a brief snapshot sharing the story of a highly committed and dedicated staff member. It is with great pleasure UCFD #1 introduces to you; Lee Watson. Watson was born and raised in Pendleton, OR. Ten days after graduating from Pendleton High School Watson found himself in basic training for the U.S. Military. Watson’s step father, Gene, had been drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and while Watson was growing up he shared stories and photos that sparked his interest in giving back to his country. Germany became the Watson’s new home for eleven years while serving in the Military until he was brought back to the U.S. where he was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana for a little over a year. While Watson was overseas his family had made the move from Pendleton to Stanfield. In 2016, when he returned back home to he had time to reflect on where he’d been and the sacrifices he’d made. “I wanted to give back to the nation because of September 11th. The tragedy of 9/11 really pushed me to go into the military, but then once I’d came back home I realized it's like I gave to the nation, but I didn't really give back to my community right here in Eastern Oregon,” explained Watson. “I didn’t have the chance to reach out and see someone that I'd helped, like getting somebody to the hospital,” he added. This thought led to his next venture, joining the fire service.

In addition to feeling like he needed to be there for his community in Eastern Oregon, Watson had seen the effects that wildfires had caused across the country and he wanted to do whatever it took to make a difference. “I was seeing a lot of the devastation from wildfires all across the nation as well as the State of Oregon and I wanted to do my part to help out. I actually wanted to be on the wildland side only and then I met one of UCFD #1’s Lieutenants and they talked me into becoming a volunteer and a Resident Intern with UCFD #1,” remembered Watson. He then enrolled into Blue Mountain Community College’s Firefighter and EMT Program while working as a Resident Intern with Umatilla County Fire District #1. Not only did this give him classroom experience but also on the job experience as all Resident Interns are assigned to a shift. Along with becoming a student, joining the department as a volunteer was the next step. “I started attending the Thursday night drills as a volunteer. When I first started coming out, training nights for volunteers was at Station 21 but once we got the Training Tower at Station 23, that's when it really kicked off with a lot of trainings,” said Watson. “While I was in the Resident Intern Academy I would go to two a day weekend trainings for Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 classes,” he added.

Similar to the brotherhood of the Military, there is a bond between firefighters in the fire service. That bond doesn’t just end when shift is over, it weaves its way into friendships outside of work. “There is a camaraderie with everyone here. We’re all friends and our families are friends, it’s just a really tight knit group. Even with the new hires that come in, it’s not long before they're hanging out with our families too. It’s really just a tight knit family here at UCFD #1,” Watson shared. Full time employees and volunteers both have a passion for giving back to the community here in town and that’s something that really makes a difference when everyone has each other’s back. There is a common misconception that volunteers don’t get paid, when in actuality they are paid for the time they come in to volunteer during emergency situations. “I’ve come in for wildland fires where we're fighting fire for 15, 16, 17 hours and then once they fire has been put out I’ll have to keep and eye on the scene all night for fire watch. The reason for this is because we've got a duty crew that has to get back to the station to get in service because we've got medical calls happening. People think that volunteers just come in and sit at the station and help clean rigs. They don't realize that POCs (Paid-On-Call) are running calls too. We’re sometimes filling a medic in between the duty crew coming back for the next call,” explained Watson. Station 24 located in Stanfield is a volunteer response station, no paid duty staff work there. Since the beginning of 2023, Station 24 has been undergoing seismic renovations and it is expected to be complete sometime this Fall. "I am super excited to see Station 24 following the renovations. It's gonna be great. I've walked through it a couple of times and I can say it's gonna be fantastic. I am super excited for it to be done,” said Watson.

When Watson isn’t volunteering or filling in at Station 21, he enjoys going camping, playing video games and spending time with his girlfriend Diana and his daughter, Emma. “I enjoy bringing my daughter around the fire station and whenever I show her the fire trucks and ambulances she gets all wide eyed and giggly,” proclaimed Watson.

For those that are reading this that might be interested in becoming a volunteer at UCFD #1, Watson encourages you to apply. “Put in an application and come to our drills on Thursday. Just come hangout and you could see what we're working with training wise and see who you’d be volunteering alongside,” Watson said. "The volunteer academy schedule is over several months this Fall. If you want to join, plan ahead and make sure you can dedicate the time that you say you're going to dedicate to it, and do your best to make it. I know emergencies happen and things can change, but try as hard as you can to make it, make the effort to get there because it's going to pay off in the end,” he added.

It is our goal to bring the community closer with our District by telling the stories of the men and women who represent Umatilla County Fire District #1. It’s better to meet them, before you need them.