Climbing the ladder in Lake Oswego
Brian Wheeler may not have taken the traditional route for higher education, but his commitment to the fire industry led him to complete his bachelor's degree in fire service administration this past June.
Wheeler has worked for the Lake Oswego Fire Department for two decades and has now moved up in rank as a lieutenant in the department.
And while working full time, he managed to complete his bachelor's degree from Eastern Oregon University.
"Most of it was online," said Wheeler, adding that it took him about five years. He's a father and also works full time. He said he took a couple classes a term until he completed his degree.
"Just kind of plugging away," said Wheeler, adding that he also received a communications minor. "I thought as a chief officer and even in my current role, we speak to a lot of members of the community, whether they're elected officials or just out in public."
Prior to being hired at the fire department, Wheeler said he earned two associates degrees in fire science and emergency medicine from Umpqua Community College. He said he has four siblings who all have either a bachelor's or master's degree so it was his "personal project" to obtain his.
"To go to the next level in terms of education," he said. "If you're comfortable, you're not challenging yourself."
Wheeler said he wanted to get outside of his comfort zone, learn new things and bring value back to the department.
Wheeler initially set out to study accounting at Oregon State University, but quickly realized he didn't want to be stuck in a room with computers for the rest of his life.
He said being a firefighter was never a childhood dream either, but he remembers driving by a fire department after he decided he no longer wanted to pursue accounting. He stopped inside and asked what steps he needed to take to become a firefighter.
"There was a lot of appealing things. It just seemed to work," Wheeler said. "I like helping people. I like the team concept. I like the new and exciting challenges that you face each day."
One of the reasons he completed this recent accomplishment was also for his two children.
"I'm proud of what Brian did," said LOFD Chief Don Johnson. "It's never easy to balance a career, especially in these tumultuous times, a family and life in general, so he did an outstanding job attending college and working hard for us at the same time."
Another certification Wheeler received last year was for becoming an engine boss, which allowed him to command a wildland fire engine — an apparatus that can drive in tough terrain alongside active fires.
Wheeler was deployed for five days in September to help battle Clackamas County wildfires and he said it was his first time being deployed.
"It was pretty awesome," he said. "It's totally different coming from a city fire department where you're protecting people's homes and there's ample water supply and you're driving on paved roads," Wheeler said. "Most of the time we can see where we're going."
He said he'd never been to rural Clackamas County before and said it was an eye-opening experience fighting the fires out there.
"You see the devastation and being able to help those people and help protect their properties is pretty awesome," he said.
While fighting the fires, Wheeler said they worked in 12-hour rotations and usually were assigned to protect people who opted to stay behind despite the evacuation notice.
Though the fire was not completely contained when he left, he felt "like we had helped protect the community and done some good work," Wheeler said.
"With Brian, like any of our leaders, I feel very confident in sending him out into whatever chaotic environment they might encounter," Johnson added. "Brian got outstanding reviews from not only the Fire Defense Board for the county, he got outstanding reviews from the state of Oregon as well for his efforts in battling the fire."
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