After nearly 21 years as the fire chief for the City of Langford, Bob Beckett will be handing in his pager on June 16.
However, that pager going off at all hours is something Beckett’s not going to miss – especially at 2 a.m. “That’s an adjustment I’m okay with,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s been a roughly 41-year journey in the fire service that led Beckett to where he is today, one that started in Waterloo, Ont., but led to many jurisdictions in that province during the early stages of his career. In the late ’80s Beckett made the move to the west coast and eventually landed in Terrace to serve as fire chief.
During those first years in B.C. Beckett took a brief two-year hiatus from the fire service, taking a position as the organ and tissue donor co-ordinator with a Vancouver hospital. But it just wasn’t the right match, so Beckett found himself moving back to Ontario and firefighting, settling in a small community outside of Windsor.
During talks of amalgamation and department restructuring Beckett started his job search again, looking at other departments in Ontario. That’s when he heard about the position with Langford.
Having lived in Vancouver he was familiar with the Island and jumped at the opportunity. “I threw my name in and haven’t looked back.”
In 1996, Beckett spent roughly a month volunteering as a firefighter with the United Nations during the Bosnian War. “We were being shelled and shot at and we were just there to help the civilians on both sides … I couldn’t understand how human beings could do that to each other … there were snipers shooting at children.”
He dug a sniper’s bullet out of a wall and hung it in his Langford office as a reminder.
Members of the Langford department were in New York less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, accompanying families of fallen firefighters to Ground Zero. “It left a huge hole in my heart. That inspired me to try to respond by working with our colleagues in Afghanistan.”
Another experience that shaped his career came when he was the fire chief in Terrace. As part of a ride along – a program that helps departments share experiences and different technical training– Beckett arrived in Los Angeles the day of the verdict in the case involving Rodney King and the ensuing riots.
He was assigned to a task force for 48 hours, “literally going from fire to fire,” Beckett said. At one point he looked at the screen that dispatched crews to their next fire. “We had 18 calls backed up waiting for us,” he said, still in disbelief.
While he noted, “every call you go to is such a significant event for those impacted by it,” there are a number that have had a significant impact on his own life.
One came when he was a firefighter in Hillsburgh, Ont. Crews were called to a farmhouse, knowing a family of five lived there, but arrived to find it fully engulfed. “To arrive on scene and not be able to attempt a rescue knowing the children were there,” Beckett’s voice trailed off. No one survived that fire.
Any calls involving children are ones that stick, he added.
Closer to home, Langford crews were dispatched to Naramata to help with the Okanagan wildfires in 2003. It was a long weekend when the call came in. “One of our trucks had rolled down the side of the mountain,” Beckett said. Three Langford firefighters were in intensive care and two others were seriously injured – all survived. “I flew out with the families of all five individuals … I’ll never forget that phone call.”
Being a member of the department is like having a large extended family. “We often refer to the fire service as our other family,” Beckett explained. “We’re responsible for each other.”
During his time with Langford he’s seen the city and his family grow with generations passing the pager to the next. “They’ve grown up in this second family, married and are now bringing their families into the hall … It’s amazing to see,” he said.
“I am so profoundly proud of everyone in our organization, grateful to the career staff, our CRD regional fire dispatchers, our dedicated volunteers and forever indebted to assistant chiefs Davidson, Spriggs, and Aubrey for their support and leadership.”
Now that retirement is on the quickly approaching horizon, Beckett plans to focus on family. “I’m going to devote a bit more time to my other family who have been very supportive over the years,” he said. “I’m going to take the summer off and enjoy our place up in Bamfield.”
After the summer he plans to do more volunteering as well. “I want to get involved in something meaningful come the fall.” That something may still involve some degree of connection to the fire service.
It’s been a career filled with ups and downs but one Beckett wouldn’t trade. “There hasn’t been a day I haven’t enjoyed coming to work and not many people can say that … I think that some people lose sight of the fact that to be in the service of others is a privilege.”