A bottle full of black and white marbles is passed around the room as each person drops one into their hands. If you get a white marble, you are in. If not, you are sent home. Lee Soptich takes a marble. It’s white.
After a 15-year career as Fire Chief of Eastside Fire and Rescue and decades as a firefighter, Soptich retired on Nov. 30.
Reminiscing about his career, he spoke about the marble game he had to play to join the volunteer firefighters in Selah, in 1975.
“It went around the table and you put a marble in your hand. If it was white, you’re in, if it was black, you’re out. It only took one black marble for you to be out,” Soptich said.
“That’s how I got started in the fire service and then they just said ‘Here’s your equipment, when you hear the fire whistle we’ll show you what to do.’”
Born in Selah, Soptich joined the volunteer firefighters when he was 18. Within a month of volunteering, he was hooked and knew that he always wanted to be involved with fire services.
“I remember as a teenage firefighter the excitement was ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know if there is going to be a call, and I don’t know what kind of call it’s going to be,’” he said. “That’s what drew me to it, the challenge of the unknown, and that’s what kept me in it.”
From volunteering in Selah, he was hired on as a firefighter in Yakima in 1979 and eventually became the Carnation Fire Chief in 1986. Thinking back on his days as an active firefighter, Soptich recalls some of the tight spots he got himself into.
“We were going upstairs thinking the fire was there when it was actually in the basement,” he said. “So it burnt out the stairwell and we fell through the stairs.
“I laugh about it now because there were two of us and we fell into a closet on the main floor. I remember our officer coming around, opening the door and saying ’Hey, are you guys going to put the fire out or not?’”
After a couple years, the Carnation department merged with Fire District 10. In 1995, the fire chief of the merged district stepped down and Soptich got the job.
After four years in that role, Carnation, District 10, Issaquah, and North Bend all came together to form Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR). After the first year of EFR’s operation, the fire chief left and Soptich was offered the position. He has been the fire chief of EFR since 2000.
“What was attractive to me was the communities we serve. North Bend, Sammamish, Issaquah, District 10, Carnation, they are very different,” he said.
“You come here and you’ve got it all. You’ve got floods and wind storms and wild-land fires and rescues and commercial building, residential stuff. It’s just so diverse.”
The various groups that Soptich has worked for have all needed different things from him.
When he was hired in Carnation it was to take an all-volunteer fire department and build it into an organization that was capable and sustainable.
When he came to District 10, it was going through an explosive period of growth.
“What we were trying to do was build a structure that could support a combination volunteer and staff fire department. That was an exciting time,” Soptich said.
With EFR, Soptich has had to coordinate the five communities, working together to provide one level of service throughout the area, rather than five different service levels and capabilities.
After 15 years as fire chief, he feels lucky that he was able to foster an environment in which talented people were able to work together. He said he has always been around people who have had a huge passion for public service and that has helped motivate him, as well.
“The department is in great shape,” Soptich said. “It’s a stable organization and it’s got wonderfully talented people stepping up to fill roles.”
This week, EFR began the interview process of the four candidates for the new fire chief. One of them, Greg Tryon, is acting as interim chief.
Soptich is confident EFR has done a good job preparing people to step up to these positions and to take EFR into the future.
He said seeing the fire services evolve over the years has been a great part about looking back on his career. One of the biggest elements of this is the communication and assistance between neighboring fire departments.
“Thirty years ago, fire departments were very territorial and it was really stupid. ‘This fire is in Yakima and I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask for any help from another fire department.’ People would let things burn down out of pride. Today there is no shame in asking for help and asking quickly,” he said.
Another aspect of growth he has seen during his long career is the multifaceted nature of modern fire services. No longer are they only dealing with fires.
According to Soptich, in the ‘70s they became an EMS response group. In the ‘80s, it was all about hazardous materials. In the ‘90s, it became emergency management disaster planning.
“It seems that about every decade something new comes along and gets added to the plate of the traditional fire department and I think it’s good,” Soptich said.
Now something new is coming to Soptich’s life as well, retirement. But before he left he wanted to express his gratitude to the people who have helped him along the way.
“I’ve had incredible mentors over the years,” he said. “Peers, subordinates, elected officials, friends, and they believed in me, they were supportive, they were forgiving. I’ve had a wonderful career. I was in the right place in the right time. I’m forever grateful.”
Lee Soptich, Eastside Fire & Rescue Fire Chief for the past 15 years, has officially retired from the department on Nov. 30. His interim replacement is Greg Tryon.