Person of the Week
Bill Beni: Where There’s Smoke…
After more than five decades of service with the Chester Hose Company and the Ambulance Association, Bill Beni has retired. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Bill Beni had a request of a reporter: Do the interview at the Chester Firehouse. It was the right place.
After 52 years of service to the Chester Hose Company and the Ambulance Association, Bill retired in October. He felt he would no longer be a part of the solution in fighting fires.
“And I didn’t want to be part of the problem,” he explains.
Bill was the first president of the Chester Hose Company as well as the first president and founding member of the Chester Ambulance Association. He recalls when Chester was one of only two towns in Connecticut without its own ambulance service.
First Selectman Lauren Gister, who attended Bill’s retirement celebration, paid tribute to his long commitment to the town.
“Without volunteers such as yourself, it would be impossible to maintain the level of care and responsiveness that the department is known for,” she noted.
Bill’s last years of service were spent as a member of the fire police, managing traffic around the scene of the blaze.
That was a job not without its own risks, as Bill reminisced at his retirement party: “Directing traffic up on Route 9 on a summer Sunday afternoon ranks right up there on the danger list. Most of the time we are viewed as a speed bump dressed up in a white hat and a yellow vest so as to be a better target.”
Bill was 23 and just married when he joined the fire department in 1967. In those days, the firehouse was not at its present location on High Street but a far smaller place on Middlesex Avenue. Bill, in fact, was co-chairman of the committee that oversaw the recent expansion of the existing High Street premises, completed in 2013.
“We needed more space. Equipment is so much larger,” he says.
Though he is now retired, one of Bill’s decorating contributions remains very visible at the firehouse: a border of fire hydrants surrounding the station. He saw a similar grouping at another fire station and liked it. All the hydrants are real, from the Connecticut Water Company, but only one is connected so it can actually spray water.
That makes no difference, Bill admits, to the canine population that has another use for hydrants. In fact, there is now a sign to advise owners not to have their dogs leave visible gifts by them.
According to Bill, the most significant difference over his years in the department is increased knowledge about hazardous materials in homes that turn into toxic fumes when burnt.
“When I started out we weren’t aware of all that,” he says.
Talking to the residents to find out what they know about potentially dangerous materials in the home is important.
“You never know what’s going to be in there; each call is going into the unknown,” he says.
Firefighters, Bill points out, now regularly use better protective gear that helps in such situations.
Today, he adds, some 80 percent of the department’s calls are medical emergencies.
Like all those with long service on the fire department, Bill remembers the huge fire in 1976 at the Russell Jennings Factory that once stood near the center of town. The fire completely destroyed the building and Bill says the challenge for the firefighters was containing the blaze so it didn’t spread further.
He also recalls a car fire on Route 9, even though it was more than 20 years ago. There were four teenagers who had escaped from the burning vehicle, though their lunch had not. The fire started in a lit hibachi on the back seat where the teens had already been grilling hamburgers.
Firefighting is not an individual exercise; it is a team response.
“You’re working with partners. They may have to save your life,” Bill says, pointing out the importance of the training and education sessions required of all members of the department.
Danger, however, is not the prevalent emotion at the Fire House. It is camaraderie.
“It’s close knit group,” Bill says. “A tradition, passed on with some families.”
In his professional life, Bill worked for National Cash Register and for some 30 years as a sales representative for Xerox, retiring in 2002. His wife Wendy says every night he would make a list of what he wanted to accomplish the following day and then when he got home, check off the things that were done. If he had accomplished something that was not on the list, he’d write it down as well and then check it off.
The habit of keeping meticulous records has stayed with him in retirement. He showed a visitor neatly folded sheets of paper in his wallet with all his doctors, medications, and surgeries listed.
“The doctors’ offices love us when they see that,” Wendy says.
These days, Bill plays a little golf, and putters around the house with such determination that he says it is hard to imagine how he ever fit a full workday into his schedule. He and Wendy like to travel, cruising the Caribbean on many occasions as well as a Mediterranean cruise. Their next cruise will be to Nova Scotia.
He says his family is his real hobby, two daughters and four granddaughters, who gave him a sweatshirt on retirement that reads “Retired Firefighters Make Great Grandpas.”
And retired firefighters have no regrets.
“I’d do it all over again,” Bill says.