Lee Wilkerson has spent the last 30 years in Cedartown battling blazes, ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat. No doubt he’s scrambled up the city fire department’s 90-foot rescue ladder more than once, but at the end of the month, Wilkerson will take a leisurely climb up a new kind of ladder and step out onto the rung of retirement.
On March 24, Wilkerson will officially retire from his position of assistant fire chief of the Cedartown Fire Department. And while he’s stacked up 30 years in the business, Wilkerson is the first to point out that he’s only scratched the surface when it comes to the science of fighting fires. “In this job, you can study seven days a week and 24 hours a day and still not know everything there is to know,” Wilkerson said. “There’s a lot I’ve seen, a lot I’ve learned and a lot that I have passed on to others, but this is such a detailed and layered job, no one individual could ever learn it all or learn enough. I’ve just tried every day to do all I can so when I go home, I can lay my head down and sleep at night.”
It’s apparent that Wilkerson has a heart for not only protecting lives and property from fire, but also for constant education and learning from others in the firefighting business. His office is filled with books and magazines dedicated to becoming better at a job that is vital to the core existence of a city.
Born and raised in Cedartown, Wilkerson said he loves working in a small town but has always admired the New York City Fire Department. “They have 11,000-plus firefighters, there’s not even that many people in Cedartown, so these guys are running thousands of calls every day, I can’t even imagine what all they see in a typical day,” he said. So it comes as no surprise that when Wilkerson was given the chance to attend trainings and seminars led by FDNY firefighters throughout his career, he jumped at every opportunity. “I distinctly remember attending a training by FDNY on high rise fires. Of course, we don’t have high rises like they do, but we have Gray Field Apartments and other multi-level buildings here. I learned so much and met the firefighters that led that class. Later, I found out that those men died in the World Trade Center collapse.”
Wilkerson, the son of 36-year CFD veteran Robert Wilkerson, grew up surrounded by firefighters and would even spend the weekend with his dad at the old City Fire Hall when it was located on Main Street. “You could say I grew up in it. I spent some time traveling as a pipe fitter, but I came back and took a job with the city. I’ve been here since,” he said.
Through the years, Wilkerson said he’s seen many advances in firefighting technology, and that has made a significant impact in the city department. “When I first started, we had to enter into a burning room and search by hand for occupants. Now, we have a thermal imaging camera that will tell us right away if there’s someone in that room and exactly where they are,” he explained. “We also used to keep our personal air packs inside plastic boxes that we stored in compartments on the fire trucks. We would arrive on scene and have to unload all that. Now, the air packs are built into the seats, so you just slip them on and you’re ready. Both of these changes save us a lot of time.”
For him, Wilkerson said the most rewarding part of his job is helping people, whether it is a life that is in danger or property that is affected by fire. “I remember once time we were at a house fire on Line Street. It was around Christmas and I remember walking in and seeing their tree and all the presents under it. We worked to contain the fire to one room, so the loss was not as bad as it could have been. We carried out their presents afterwards and at least they were able to unwrap them on Christmas.”
But sometimes property loss is unavoidable, like in the case of the 1986 Goodyear Mill fire, Wilkerson recalls. “Back then, we rode on the tailboard and when we came down Wissihickon and turned down Furnace Street and the Mill came into view, every door and window of that place was blowing fire. We were at the front of the building and the heat was so intense, we couldn’t stay there. That is the only fire I remember where we had to refuel the trucks on scene because we were there so long. There wasn’t enough water in Cedartown to put that fire out. We just had to concentrate on containing it and keeping it from spreading.”
Wilkerson has certainly witnessed many things through his years spent with the department: major fires and changes in tactics and technology, along with an increase in calls. In 1984, Wilkerson reports that 323 calls were logged – compare that with last year’s 1,573 calls. But through it all, Wilkerson has been a consistent force within the department, according to Cedartown Fire Chief Sammy Stephens. “I have worked with Lee almost 29 years and can say he is just as dedicated to his profession today as he was at the start of his career,” he said. “He has served his community and this department with great pride and professionalism for 30 years. That’s something to be proud of. I am proud to have been able to have him as the assistant chief of the Cedartown Fire Department, but take greater pride in having been able to call him my friend. May God bless him and his family as he starts this new chapter in his life.”