It’s a lot of hard work running an entire fire department during these trying and unfamiliar times, but that hasn’t deterred Danville’s new fire chief. In between battling blazes and conducting COVID-19-related protocols and supply hunts, Don McMasters, sworn into the post in March, answered a few questions from staff writer Alexandria Kobryn on all things fire and the road to becoming chief.
How does it feel to be the new fire chief, and what does this new post mean for you?
It feels great, however different, being the fire chief now. I was so used to being on a 24/48-hour rotating shift and being in charge of 14 personnel. I have worked a 24/48 schedule for 24 years. Now I am in charge of 45 personnel on three shifts, with all of their different problems and concerns. Every day I am dealing with a different shift commander and staff, so it is taking some getting used to. I love the work hours change. I will no longer be up at 2 in the morning when it’s 20 outside and won’t have to miss holidays with the family anymore, etc. The new position gives me the ability to take the department back up to the level we were at again, where the department has a person speaking out and fighting for it. This also allows me to get the department out in the public again training, doing business inspections and public fire prevention activities. I think the department should be visible and engaging in the community so that the public that pays our salaries sees what they are getting for their hard earned money.
How long have you been putting out fires for?
I have been with the department since August 1995, so I am working on my 25th year. I was just shy of 23 when I started. I became a lieutenant at a pretty young age, with just six years on the job, in June 2011. Then I was promoted to captain in November 2011. The last jump has been the whirlwind one though, being promoted to assistant chief in December of 2018, then chief in March of this year.
Did you grow up wanting to be a firefighter?
I wanted to be an architect or engineer when I graduated high school and began schooling at DACC for that. However, my now-wife’s two brothers were both volunteer firefighters at the time and got me interested in that fresh out of high school. By the time I was old enough to test to become a professional firefighter, I was hooked. I completed my associate degree then began trying to get a job firefighting. I did go back to Parkland and receive a second associate in fire service technology after I got my job here.
What’s the craziest or most memorable experience you’ve had as a firefighter?
I can’t think of a single memorable experience that stands out. There have been many memorable events, mostly with structure fires. Several occasions where we have pulled people or pets safely out of burning structures.
What are the best and worst parts of the job?
The best parts of the job: The “family” I’ve inherited ... Many firefighters, current and retired, and their personal families that have become my family as well. The hundreds of lives that we have helped for the better or have made their day just a little better.
The worst parts of the job: The time lost away from my family ... many times spending holidays with people I don’t even know while my family is at home celebrating without me. The bad, bad, unmentionable things I’ve seen due to the nature of this job that will never be out of my mind. The sad and horrific things that we see and have to respond appropriately to take a toll on us mentally.
If you weren’t a firefighter, what would you be?
I probably would be an engineer of some type. Something where I would be outside a lot doing my job. I love being outdoors.
What do you like to do in your down time?
I love most to spend time with my family. They are my everything, and their being near keeps me going. We like to take walks, play golf, downhill skiing, watching baseball and hockey games or just hang out in the pool. I also like to hunt and fish.
I heard you were in a bad motorcycle accident a few years back. Would you mind telling me a bit about what happened and how has it impacted your life and work?
I was in a very bad motorcycle accident in 2005. A car trying to make a turn across traffic in front of me did not see me coming, at about 50 mph. I spent 38 days in the hospital; 26 or so I don’t remember. Several surgeries, from my head to my knee. They had to put my head back together with several plates and numerous screws. I was not wearing a helmet. I was about nine months out of work before I was back into condition to return and cleared. I’ve learned now to not take life and your family for granted. You never know when yours or one of their lives may end abruptly. So cherish every moment you have with them. This was driven home when I lost my mother very unexpectedly a few years ago. By the way, I do not ride motorcycles anymore. It also has affected work a little, too, specifically when we get called for vehicle accidents. I’m running through my mind what may have happened with the accident and how it may have been prevented. As well, it increases your empathy with the involved people and their families.