Looking back at his many years of fighting fires, Fred Mason admits it was a job he wished he would never had to have done.
"I tell the kids each year during Fire Prevention Week that we don’t want anyone to have a fire; even a small fire destroys so much. We’d just as soon take the fire trucks out only for training, parades and giving kids a ride. A fire can be a life-changing experience."
Mason recently hung up his firefighting gear for the last time. After more than 46 years as a volunteer on the Slater Fire Department, he said it’s time to let the younger guys take over.
On a rare break from work, the muscular 74-year-old man sat back in a rescued car seat in his Slater service station and looked back at his many years of volunteer fire-fighting.
Over that time he has worn many hats. He has served as chief, assistant chief and captain, but his thoughts raced immediately back to the early years back when he was a rookie firefighter.
"Back then we had two trucks. A 1959 Ford pumper and an Army surplus tanker truck. We stuck a motor out of a junked car in the tanker. It didn’t work too good. The v-belt kept flying off and the defroster didn’t work. Someone in the passenger seat had to keep wiping off the windshield in the winter."
A smile crept across his face as he thought back to those old fire trucks.
"The weather was so cold we froze the pump on the way to one fire. After another call, just north of town, our coats and gear froze so bad we couldn’t bend enough to get back in the truck."
More memories clicked in as his mind traveled back to days long gone.
"I remember many calls – the old Slater creamery fire, the train derailment in Kelley where several anhydrous ammonia cars were ruptured, the lumber yard in Madrid, several elevator fires and numerous house fires.
"As chief I was especially proud of the department the time the old elevator, located a couple blocks north of Main Street, burned. The heat was so intense you could feel it at Archie Peterson’s clothing store on Main Street. We put it out without help from any other fire departments. I believe the fire was caused by kids smoking cigarettes."
Mason paused and then chuckled.
"I can’t help but remember a raccoon jumping out of the upper story window when we burned down the other old elevator in Slater. You’d think the fall would have killed him, but he hit the ground running."
The firefighters fought those fires protected by a hard plastic helmet; rubber waterproof, but not fireproof, jackets and rubber boots without any toe protection.
"It used to be when a firefighter quit the department we would try to find someone to replace him that fit his gear."
The veteran firefighter suddenly turned to more serious matters.
"In all the time I’ve been on, I have stressed putting out the fire with as little water and damage to the property as possible. The fire service keeps changing their mind on that. Now they say if there isn’t water running out from under the doors, you didn’t use enough water."
He is also concerned about the future of volunteer fire departments in Iowa’s towns and smaller cities. He said the state keeps demanding more from volunteers.
"I’m afraid the volunteers are going to get burned out and the communities could have a hard time replacing them. The state wants them to have the same training as paid departments. People forget that the volunteers have jobs and families that require their time as well."
Another big hurdle is money Mason emphasized.
"Back in 1976, our first new pumper costs us $32,000; in 1991, our next new pumper cost $112,000; the last truck we got in 2003 was around $250,000. Our personal gear is about $1800, and three years later it probably won’t pass standards."
He can see a time when one department, located in a central location, will protect the entire area and all the towns. That will mean longer response time and less protection.
"I feel a volunteer fire department needs to be more like a large family," he said. "I’ve seen this department grow from 12 to 15 volunteers and we still work together well as a team." And that’s what Mason said he will miss.
"I’ll miss the comradeship the most. Not just the firefighting. I’ll miss the fireman’s dances, the Christmas parties and all the special activities we have been responsible for over the years."
Mason does plan to continue his annual Fire Prevention Week visits to the elementary school. He will also oversee the fireworks display next Fourth of July. Then, too, you might see him behind the wheel of a fire truck occasionally if the department is caught shorthanded.
(Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He lives near Cambridge.)