DeKALB – Albert Riippi remembers being a firefighter in DeKalb in 1949 before modern technology came into the picture and said that when a feather mattress was burning, he’d choke down smoke and crawl into the building without a mask.
Riippi, who turns 93 on Halloween, had a long career with the DeKalb Fire Department.
He was in from September 1949 to March 1952 when he left to pursue a dream with the National Football League. After injuries sidelined him, he returned to DeKalb in August 1959 and worked with the fire department until February 1986, retiring after seven years as fire chief.
“In my time, you didn’t have any [masks],” Riippi said while sitting at the kitchen table at Fire Station No. 1, on his third cup of coffee. “You got on your hands and knees and choked it down. We’ve made so much progress over the years, this modern technical science of chemistry and all that kind of stuff.”
The DeKalb Fire Department – which began as a volunteer-only department in 1869 – is celebrating
150 years of operation in the city.
Community members, retirees, and all on the roster are invited to attend a celebration Oct. 12 at Northern Illinois University’s Barsema Alumni Center. Tickets cost $50 a person and can be purchased at www.eventbrite.com before Friday.
Fire Chief Jeff McMaster called it “extremely humbling” to be a part of the 150-year legacy as the department’s leader. He said a lot has changed even in his 24 years of service. Emergency services have heard a higher response rate for medical calls, and after Sept. 11, 2001, fire departments changed how they prepared for mass-casualty incidents.
McMaster feels certain one thing’s stayed constant since 1869, though.
“When you come in on duty, you’re here to serve the public,” McMaster said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s getting a bat out of someone’s house, putting out a fire, extricating someone from a vehicle or confined space. We’re here to serve that person, and that’s always been the legacy.”
Members of the fire department said they try to host Riippi among other local retirees once a week for breakfast at the fire station, and said they consider themselves family.
Riippi, who played for the Green Bay Packers and served in the Navy on Okinawa during World War II, has seen his fair share of historic fires. He was the on-duty captain during the fire at St. Mary Church in 1974, and also worked the fire at Grant Towers in 1972 on the NIU campus.
“I was working that night, and I pulled up on there, and the front of the church was on fire,” Riippi said. “You can’t believe it!”
He wasn’t yet 21 when he wanted to go into the police service full time, so he decided to don the firefighter’s coat instead, and said he always liked being part of a team. He said he made about $215 a month as a firefighter at the now demolished fire station that sat on the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Highway from 1903 to 1979 and was built for $10,200.
“People helping people, somebody’s got a problem,” Riippi said, describing what led him into service. “When the phone rings or the alarm goes off, somebody’s got a problem or needs some help.”
Unlike modern times, where the majority of 911 calls to the fire department are medical-related and have increased substantially in volume, Riippi said there was some down time on his 24-hour shifts, and he and the other guys would often spend it sharpening kids’ ice skates for NIU’s Lagoon, refilling fire extinguishers, and mopping the floor where the fire engine was housed.
During Riippi’s time and for many years after, the station operated by a box alarm, pre-radio and internet. Phone lines across the city connected to a box alarm, with large bells that would ring if someone pulled the alarm near their home. The department still has the box alarm displayed in the basement of Fire Station No. 1.
DeKalb firefighters have called seven stations home over their 150-year history, said firefighter/paramedic Lt. Luke Howieson, who also serves as one of the department’s historians and has been with DeKalb for 18 years.
The department’s first chief was William Miller, who was barbed-wire inventor Isaac Ellwood’s brother-in-law. He served when the department was volunteer, from 1870 to 1903.
Pictures of Miller adorn the living room at Fire Station No. 1, which originally was built in 1971.
“William Miller’s like our great-great grandfather,” Howieson said. “Having the pictures and everything around your home, knowing your family history is real important to firefighters.”
Station No. 2 on South Seventh Street was built in 1956, and Station No. 3 on Dresser Road in 1994.
For Howieson and others like firefighter Pat Eriksen, being a part of the 150-year legacy is what makes the DeKalb Fire Department special.
“It’s tradition,” Ericksen said. “To know all the guys that have been here before us and that we’re keeping their memories as well as the memory and tradition of DeKalb Fire still alive, and preserving it for the next generation.”