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Firefighter Gets Career Achievement Award

August 1, 2002

Master Technician John Mayers Jr., a firefighter with the Fair Oaks Station, received a career-achievement award last week from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. And as far as his station commander Mike Deli is concerned, he couldn't have been more deserving.

"I wish I had a dozen employees like John," he said. "He's outstanding and has a high level of dedication and commitment to every task. He's on the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team, he's on our critical incidents stress-debriefing team and he's an instructor for the structural-collapse portion of our Technical Rescue Operations (TROT) team."

Deli said Mayers' peers and supervisors have a tremendous amount of respect for him. "He's an all-around good person — someone you really want on your team," said Deli. "He really loves what he does. He certainly has the aptitude and ability to become a company officer or higher, but he chooses to do this, instead, because he likes the hands-on part of the job, its technical aspects and the interaction with people."

Mayers and wife Debi have three children, Jason, 22, a Virginia Tech grad; Chad, 20, a Virginia Tech junior and Amy, 17, a senior at Osbourn Park High. Son of an Air Force pilot, Mayers was born in Laramie, Wyo., and ended up in Virginia when his dad retired.

When he was 16, he became a volunteer firefighter in Burke and was instantly hooked. "It gets in your blood and you can't get it out," he said. "I really enjoyed helping people, I liked the excitement of not going to a job where everything was the same everyday and I liked the challenges."

Mayers volunteered two years, studied medicine awhile and became a professional firefighter and EMT (emergency medical technician) in Hilton Head, S.C. He also worked for an Arizona fire department. But since his dad lived in Fairfax County, he applied for work here and was hired by the county in 1982.

He graduated from the Fire and Rescue Academy, served at the Seven Corners station and became a driver-apparatus technician, driving the fire trucks. "I love it," he said. "I'm still doing it." Next came two years with the Great Falls station and four years at Dunn Loring.

Mayers joined the FEMA and TROT teams in 1989 and was promoted to master technician. Next, he went to the Burke station as a driver and TROT member. "We did lots of car wrecks and vehicle extrications," he said. In 1996 he came to Fair Oaks, but his first FEMA deployment was a year earlier — April 19, 1995 when, as a rescue specialist, he went to Oklahoma City after the bombing.

"We hoped we could rescue some live victims but, of course, we could not," he said. "We started with the rubble on the sixth floor and, in seven days, we worked our way down to the basement. The people of Oklahoma City were astonishing — their emotional support was just incredible. We worked 12-hour shifts, and they gave us the drive to keep going."

In 1997, Mayers joined the county's Critical Incident Stress-Management team as a peer counselor. He counsels firefighters with family problems or issues dealing with the calls they ran — anything, at all. He talks to FEMA members returning from missions to help them handle the stress.

"It helps me cope, also," he said. But most rewarding, said Mayers, is "knowing that we're taking care of our own. The old mentality used to be, 'Suck it up — deal with it like a man.' But they realize that we're human and have many issues to deal with on the scene. You see the whole gamut [of emotions]. The fire service is like having another family."

He also noted that Station 21 (Fair Oaks) is one of the busiest in the county: "We have more buildings, houses and highways, and we run more calls."

Mayers has also seen lots of action with FEMA. He was at the Atlanta Olympics in June 1996 with the Rapid Deployment Team, in case of terrorism. July 1997 found him at Topsail Island, N.C., due to Hurricane Fran; and in August 1998, he responded to the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya.

Then came an incredible 90 days between August and November 1999 in which Mayers and the Urban Search and Rescue team helped out after devastating earthquakes in Ismit and Duzce, Turkey and in Taipei, Taiwan.

"In Ismit, we flew 19 hours to get there and hit the ground running," said Mayers. "We worked 45 hours straight. I've been on eight [FEMA] missions, and that was the only one where we were able to make four live rescues. Morale went through the roof. We were just so happy to find anyone alive."

Mayers climbed down a void space in a collapsed building, tunneled down about 20 feet and rescued a 44-year-old woman trapped in her apartment building. "She went to the hospital and was back at work, the next day," he said. "It was a 100-percent team effort — all the guys working together."

Then came the Sept. 11 tragedy, and Mayers was a squad officer heading an eight-man team of rescue specialists plus a medic responding to the Pentagon. "My initial impression was a flashback to Oklahoma City," he said. "It was on our own turf — in our own backyard again."

As always, firefighters hoped for live rescues but, because of the fire and building collapse, it wasn't possible. "We got there two hours afterward," said Mayers. "By that time, the live victims had all been rescued."

His group was on site seven days, and Mayers said everyone "did a tremendous job clearing debris, recovering bodies and shoring up the entire first floor." He also spoke of "the pride that our guys were in there — we all pulled together in extremely difficult circumstances and did the best we could do."

As for the Fair Oaks station, Mayers says it's a terrific place to work and he's got a great shift. "It's a good group of real go-getter guys," he said. "And the ones on the TROT team here go the extra mile to get the training to do the things they do."

Battalion Chief Tom Watson presented Mayers' career-achievement award last Wednesday, July 24, and totally surprised him. "I thought the ceremony was for some other people, and then here come my wife, father and daughter around the corner," he said. "It was awesome — really cool."

But, he said, "I couldn't do it without the great group of guys here. It's not what I do — it's what we all do as a team. I'm just honored to be able to work with these folks. I think there's no greater people that walk on the face of the earth than firefighters. We see the stress and disasters on both a large and small scale, but the payoff is when you can see that you've really made a difference."