As a child, Barry Beck was fascinated by the sight and sounds of fire engines when they'd roar past his house, sirens blaring. When he was old enough, he joined the Hockessin Fire Company. Now, five decades later, he still finds serving in the company to be a rewarding experience – and he gets to drive his favorite fire truck.
On Sept. 12, Beck was honored for 50 years of service to the fire company during the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association annual conference in Dover. Then, he drove Hockessin's 1967 Autocar-Diesel truck in the DVFA Parade Sept. 14, and the truck was awarded the first place trophy in the category for antique motorized fire apparatus from 1959 to 1984.
Beck grew up in Kaolin, Pa., just over the state line, not far from Hockessin.
"I loved hearing the Hockessin fire engine going by to Avondale when Hockessin would assist with a fire there," he said.
He joined the fire company in 1963 and was riding on the back of the same fire truck he used to see and hear going past his house.
"When I joined, it was a great learning experience," Beck said. "You learned responsibility, accountability, what to do, what not to do. You learned to do what the chief and officers tell you to do."
Beck earned his bachelor's degree at West Chester State College (now university) and started teaching social studies, history, and geography in Coatesville, Pa.
"It was an ideal school district back then," he said. "A lot has changed."
Beck was looking for a change when he decided to stop teaching and try to join the Delaware State Police in 1970.
"I tell people I left because I was looking for a safer profession," he said, smiling.
He was living in the Prices Corner area, and he was tired of the drive to Coatesville. He decided if he was going to change schools, he'd look into changing careers first. Already a member of the Hockessin Fire Company, he enjoyed being a part of emergency service, and so he applied to become a Delaware State trooper.
He was accepted into the State Police and served for 27 years as a trooper.
That's also where he met the woman he would marry.
"My wife was the first woman to retire from the State Police. She wasn't the first to be hired, but she was the first to complete her career and retire as a trooper," Beck said. "When I first started, there were no women troopers. I don't know if my wife and I were the first troopers to ever get married, but we might be."
His wife, Kathy, serves in the Hockessin Fire Company Auxiliary, so they work together at fire company events like the monthly breakfast fundraiser at Memorial Hall.
Page 2 of 2 - After countless hours as a volunteer in the fire company – including multiple terms as company president – Beck still serves on the fire company's duty crew every 10th day, working a 12-hour shift.
What's the biggest change he's seen while serving in the fire company?
"The volume of traffic," he said. "Years ago, when we had a call in the middle of the night, we'd be the only ones on the road. Now it's a lot more difficult to get through all the traffic to respond to a call, no matter what time of day it is."
Beck said the number of calls is a lot higher, and the company now has a mix of some volunteers, some paid firefighters, and paid emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Along with the increased staffing, there are so many more procedural issues to worry about, he said, such as liability issues – worrying about someone making a mistake that's going to result in a lawsuit.
"Today, it's much more stressful," he said. "There's a lot more for the chief and president to worry about."
Still, the overall experience is very rewarding, Beck said.
What has he enjoyed the most?
"The camaraderie of working with the same people over a long period of time – working together for the good of the fire company and the community," he said.
LOVE THAT TRUCK
Something else Beck enjoys is driving the 1967 Hockessin fire engine in parades like the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association Parade in Dover Sept. 14.
"Every place I go with this, people love it," Beck said. "It's different, a little odd, unusual. This was the first diesel-powered fire engine delivered to the state of Delaware."
He's also one of the few members of the fire company who can drive the Autocar-Diesel. It's got 10 speeds – five in low range and five in high.
The chassis, body, and pump were all made in Pennsylvania at three different companies.
"It's a bit unusual because it's a 1967 open cab," he said.
After riots across the nation – including Wilmington – in the late 1960s, sparked by issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War, fire trucks had to be made with enclosed cabs to protect the firefighters.
"When I joined the fire company in 1963, the only vehicle that was enclosed was the ambulance," Beck said. "It's a shame because the open cab offered several advantages. One was observation. You could see all around you a lot easier to help spot exactly where the fire was as you were approaching the scene. The chief could stand up and shout instructions to the firefighters on the back of the truck, and then there was the ease of entry and exit when you're wearing all that equipment. Every second counts in an emergency, and the open cab saved time."