A few weeks ago, I was given the privilege of observing The Fire Asylum’s Masters of Mayhem training program. The Fire Asylum is the brain child of Marty Mayes, a retired veteran police officer and firefighter from Texas. I have known Marty for quite sometime and this training program has been building for many years before this moment in time. This was Marty’s second class being ran at the former West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia. The students brought to this class did not know one another and were essentially six strangers.
The prison itself is a daunting structure and really foreshadows what each student is in for during the training. At the beginning of the day of training each student lines up at the front entrance of the prison. Each student is brought into the prison, just as the inmates were when this prison started. The Moundsville State Penitentiary had one of two revolving entrances in the world, and each student goes though this process when they start their day. The students are lead to the cells of the maximum security wing of the prison, the North Hall Block, where they are put into the very location that some of the most notorious prisoners of this penitentiary stayed.
The students are given the expectations of the program and given their uniform shirt for the 25 hour training they are about to endure. Yes, you read right. This training is 25 hours long. The students will train for 25 hours in a row with a few breaks thrown in, but we will get back to this part of the program soon. The students are led to a classroom where they are introduced to their instructors and go over the objectives of the training.
Students are lead back to the lock down recreation yard in the prison complex and introduced to the “Grinder”. The Grinder is where the students are going to spend a good part of their day. The Grinder is a make shift Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) confidence course designed to stress the students and bring them to a point of exhaustion. Students will go through the Grinder over and over again, until they have mastered the skills in the Grinder. This part of the training goes well into the night. The students are tired, but morale is good.
As someone who has never seen or experienced this type of training before, it was amazing to see how the students bonded with one another fairly quickly. These relative strangers had become a cohesive unit working together for a unified goal. It was very inspiring to see these students come to this point in their training.
The students were taken to the second floor of the prison and introduced to the “Snowcone”. The Snowcone is a three level SCBA confidence course, similar to the Grinder, but this is all enclosed and in almost complete darkness. The Snowcone only has one way in and one way out. This is where the students will be put to the test and will find enlightenment.
As I started to observe the students go one by one into the Snowcone, emotions started to bubble up from the students. Some of the students thrived in the Snowcone and some needed encouragement to complete the tasks. It was powerful each instructor of the program took the time necessary to encourage the students to discover their shortcomings and discover new skills sets to complete the tasks before them. It was powerful to see the interactions between the instructors and students. I personally have never seen this type of instruction given to students. If one had a particular problem within the Snowcone, the instructor would go right in with them to help guide them past what was holding them back.
I recall a particular incident where a student left the Snowcone complaining of chest pain. After a medical evaluation, one of the instructors sat down one on one with the student to help guide him to the root of the issue. The student was then allowed to return to the Snowcone, but this time the prop was surrounded by all the instructors. The instructors ensured that the student was able to successfully complete the drill without complications. This indeed happened and the student learned from his incident. The student grew and became more mentally resilient.
The second incident that I observed during the training was a student who found the limits of his body. The student had just exited the Snowcone and was visibly overwhelmed. The instructors brought him to the side and started to medically evaluate him. The student had reached a point of complete exhaustion and was sidelined for the time being until he could be rehabbed. Unfortunately, the student had reached his physical limit and wasn’t able to complete anymore drills, but once he started to feel better you could perceive it was bothered him to not be with the crew. It really showed how much this group had bonded with one another. Eventually he did return to observe his fellow students. It was a true inspiration to see his dedication to the group effort.
As the night progressed, each student learned more about themselves from each drill. They may not have been able to receive these enlightenments without this high-stress training. For me it was a humbling experience to observe this group of relative strangers grow and become a strong unit of brother firefighters. I was truly blown away with the skill, patience, and love the instructors had for this group of students and truly the fire service as a whole. Even though I didn’t participate in the training, I too couldn’t help to feel bonded with these students and instructors. I consider myself truly lucky to be able to observe this training and hope to take it myself at the next offering.
Before I finish this article, I wanted to highlight the most inspiring story of this experience. One of the students I met during this experience was Matt Wander. Matt is an Army Veteran and has worked in the fire service for several years. He was someone who latched on the The Fire Asylum’s mission from the first time he saw it.
In 2013, after serving our country and becoming a firefighter and paramedic, Matt had started to get sick. Matt was found to have a tumor in his abdominal region. In December of 2013, Matt started his chemotherapy treatment, but had to discontinue. Matt was given a medication alternative. In the beginning of 2014, Matt was hospitalized and given one to four weeks to live. After four weeks had passed, Matt was still alive and given another month to live. Matt surpassed that expectation as well and was given a few more months to live. Then, it seemed as if he was beating the odds. However, it was discovered Matt’s cancer had become inoperable and terminal.
Matt reached out to Marty and told him his story that he had always wanted to take the Masters of Mayhem class. Marty obviously found this story heart wrenching, and he felt the need to give Matt his wish. Marty was able to raise the funds to bring Matt and his caregiver girlfriend Emily to Moundsville.
Matt was allowed to participate in the training as he felt up to it. He was monitored the whole time by Marty and Emily, making sure he didn’t over commit himself. Obviously, watching Matt go through the Grinder and participate in other activities in the training was a true inspiration to not only myself, but also to the other students and the instructors.
Matt was able to give it his all during his time in The Fire Asylum, and it was truly amazing to meet him and see him operate on the training grounds. Matt is what firefighting is all about. Despite what is going on with him, he left it behind to accomplish the task at hand. Many can learn from Matt’s example, and it was truly a gift to be able to meet him. I hope Matt is able to defy the odds again and beats his cancer to live a long and healthy life. I am truly honored to call him a friend and brother.
As I conclude this article, I can’t talk more highly of this experience and hope that as you read this it ignites something with you. I cannot recommend this class more highly for any firefighter at any level of their career. If you wants to learn more about yourself or learn your limitations, this is the class for you. The Fire Asylum is a safe place where a firefighter can go to learn about themselves without fear of being chastised or belittled. As Marty says, The Fire Asylum is an asylum for a firefighter to discover him or herself. If you truly are interested in becoming a better firefighter, then you need to enroll in this class. You won’t regret it! I have included links to The Fire Asylum website and Facebook page. Dip your toe into the asylum and see if you can’t find what you are seeking. It’s worth the time and consideration.