Stanley: Retired fire lieutenant a tough teacher
BY BRIAN STANLEY Life of Brianemail@example.com October 6, 2013 7:58PM
Instructor Mike Mason (center) reviews a training scenario with firefighters practicing Rapid Intervention Company Operations during a class last month at the Romeoville Fire Academy. Students learn how to safely rescue fellow firefighters who are trapped or hurt in a fire. | Brian Stanley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 8, 2013 6:06AM
Mike Mason was giving a student an earful when I walked up.
“Firefighters die when someone tries to do too much. They say, ‘I got this chief,’ and they don’t,” Mason said.
He said quite a bit more, but that’s about all we’re allowed to print in a family newspaper.
Mason resumed assigning tasks to firefighters from Illinois, Wisconsin, Montreal and Santiago, Chile as smoke poured from the three-story training module at the Romeoville Fire Academy. The firefighters moved quickly, unless he told them to move slowly.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” another instructor said.
Last month, Mason, a retired lieutenant from the Downers Grove Fire Department, directed a class on Rapid Company Intervention Operations, or RICO, which trains firefighters to rescue each other from being trapped or hurt if a wall collapses or the floor gives way.
Mason bases a week of lectures and hands-on drills on scenarios from actual on-duty firefighting deaths. Before a written final exam, 10 instructors and several interpreters had 35 firefighters staged at the training module, which was a stack of shipping containers, to show what they’d learned.
“I’m on your side. The instructors don’t allow me to see anything,” Mason told the six companies. “I know you’ve all got the heart to do the job of 15 men, but that’s not the reality of firefighting.”
“Sometimes I’ve got to make decisions about something that I can’t see on the inside,” he said.
With mayday calls from a collapsed stairwell on one side of the “building” and a search on the other, firefighters used ropes, ladders, axes and air tanks to try and reach mannequins as quickly a possible without putting more of “their brothers” in harm’s way.
As operations came to an end, Mason was happy with the effort but kept cautioning his students about the importance of respecting command even if the adrenaline urged them to keep going.
And Mason understands that isn’t easy.
“I’ve got enough pink paper to redo my living room. I was written up so many times, but it wasn’t stupidity, it was the love of my guys,” he said.
Mason grew up on Chicago’s West Side and is a survivor of the historic Dec. 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School that killed 92 students and three nuns.
I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t think that’s what influenced his career choice. And I was surprised at what did.
“I have a master’s degree in jazz performance. So I was starving to death when three Chicago buddies (who were firefighters) said, ‘Come ride with us,’ ” Mason said.
He packed his flute and spent two years with the Chicago Fire Department and three years in Boston bidding on assignments. He ended up serving with Downers Grove from 1987 to 2011.
He also has instructed fire classes for 25 years and isn’t fazed by having students from all over the world.
“This class is knowing how to save your brother, just as he would be saving you. That’s what this is,” he told the firefighters.