“You don’t know how many people you touch,” El Dorado Hills Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb said recently as he sat back in his office chair and reflected on his nearly 35-year fire service career.
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He recalled a man stopping him in the grocery store once to thank O’Camb for saving the man’s daughter. He smiled as he remembered the little boy who managed to get himself trapped in a closet. O’Camb and a fellow firefighter dismantled the door, got the shaken youngster out and then put the door back together.
The friendships — O’Camb said he will always be grateful for the people he has met throughout the years. And even though retirement looms (a month away) he won’t forget what the fire service and his life in El Dorado County has given him.
“It has been a fantastic career,” O’Camb said. “Having a job that allows me to serve the community and help others in their times of need … it’s truly been amazing for me to do that, to provide that ‘caring’ level of service.”
A 1979 Ponderosa High School graduate, O’Camb said he never wanted to go to school again. He took a construction job and helped out on the family’s Shingle Springs ranch where they raised goats and pigs. One evening, his father Jack, a Shingle Springs volunteer firefighter, invited his son to a training class … “20 minutes later I was a volunteer,” Jim said.
When a call came in, O’Camb would toss on his gear, hop on the fire truck’s tailboard and take the bouncy journey to the emergency. His first fire involved a magnesium motor, not easily extinguishable. “As we were putting water on it, it kept exploding,” he recalled.
Though he said he never really thought about a fire service career, O’Camb confessed, “After a couple of calls, I thought, ‘This is a really neat thing.” Not only did he get to help people, he said he really enjoyed working with the other volunteers — pillars of the community who volunteered their time.
After about five years as a volunteer, O’Camb worked his way into a part-time paid position. During the same time, he broke his self-made promise of ditching the classroom forever and started taking classes through the state Fire Marshal’s Office, earning his Firefighter 1 certificate and EMT 1 certificate, as well as graduating to a driver/operator.
All the while, O’Camb hadn’t given up his construction job. He was 26 and just starting his own construction business when a Cameron Park assistant fire chief offered him a career-changing opportunity.
“I said, ‘absolutely,’” he said. “I was happy as a clam to get a full-time job in the fire service.”
His job also led to a happy marriage. O’Camb met his wife Leslee in 1990 after he transported an accident victim to Marshall Hospital. Leslee was a nurse and after a few months they tied the knot. The couple has two children: Baylee, 22, and Griffin, 19.
After four years of mostly ambulance calls, O’Camb decided he wanted to do more to help; he went back to the classroom again to become a licensed paramedic. In the mid-1990s Cameron Park began negotiations to merge with the El Dorado Hills Fire Department. O’Camb was already working at El Dorado Hills’ Station 84 on Francisco when the merger “fell apart at the last second.” The Cameron Park Community Services District contracted with Cal Fire and O’Camb had a decision to make.
“I had a young family and El Dorado Hills needed personnel,” he said. “I tested and came out No. 1.”
EDH Fire Chief Larry Fry hired O’Camb as a firefighter/paramedic. About five years later, he was promoted as captain. A few years after that, he became a battalion chief and followed that up with the deputy chief title in 2008. O’Camb also served as El Dorado Hills’ fire marshal and filled in as interim chief after Chief Brian Veerkamp retired.
Through an innovative job-sharing program, Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating will take on some of O’Camb’s duties. The El Dorado Hills Fire Department and Rescue Fire Department have agreed to a six-month sharing agreement though EDH Fire Chief Dave Roberts said, if everything goes well, they will likely extend that arrangement. Keating and O’Camb were often involved in the same meetings and fire service activities.
Roberts called O’Camb his “right-hand man” and said with a sigh, “He will definitely be missed.”
Firefighters, paramedics and other emergency officials often see people on one of the worst days of their lives. The emotional toll it takes on first responders is immeasurable, but O’Camb said he never had a second though about his career choice even when he had the tough task of communicating with families who just lost a loved one.
“It’s our job to make it better,” he said, explaining that helping the families through the ordeal also allowed him to process his emotions. He remembers the death of an 8-year-old girl, who was hit by a car near a fire station. Not only did he help the family on that tragic day, he also attended a memorial unveiling at the little girl’s school.
Over the years, O’Camb and fellow firefighters have attended numerous memorial services and funerals, but O’Camb also clearly remembers those saved. With CPR: One minute the patient is gone and the next “he’s sitting up and you’re having a conversation with him.” And he recalls the close calls — a truck with its brakes locked up slamming into an overturned car while fellow firefighter Tom Anselmo tried to pull the original victim from the upside-down vehicle. Anselmo moved just in time and no one was hurt, including the woman still strapped in her car when it was hit and pushed several feet.
Thank the big man upstairs for that — a Christian, O’Camb credits his faith for his successes and his next adventure. For nine years, O’Camb has joined other volunteers heading to Mexico where they’ve built houses for families in La Mision. Jim and Leslee hope to make the community their permanent home in the near future.
They plan to head to the Pacific Northwest first (their daughter lives in Seattle) then buy a boat and sail south. Leslee hopes to work in one of the nearby medical clinics. Reconnecting with his construction roots, Jim plans to continue his mission of helping the people living literally in a trash dump. The homes they’ve built won’t rival Serrano but they’re a major improvement on makeshift shanties at the mercy of the weather. After their last trip earlier this fall, Jim said the family of four thanked them for their new 8-foot by 20-foot home that stayed dry when it rained.
Then again, Jim might take on a different job across the border. Friends in the area have already told him they need a “bombero” — a firefighter to start a real fire department. Jim shook his head at the suggestion but, after a moment of reflection, he said, “Who knows?”