A lot has changed at the Riverhead Fire Department since May of 1962. But for the Reliable Hose & Engine Company No. 1, one thing has remained a constant since then: Norman “Skip” Beal.
The 53-year veteran of the department is still an active member for his department, answering nearly 280 alarms last year.
We caught up with Mr. Beal at the Riverhead firehouse to talk about camaraderie in the department, fighting wildfires, and the changes he’s seen since he joined as a 21-year-old decades ago.
Q: What inspired you to volunteer with the fire department?
A: A friend of mine. There was an opening in the Reliable Hose & Engine Company and him and I worked together in Grumman and he said “Hey, you want to be a firefighter?” I said sure.
When I joined the fire department, I took an oath to protect my friends, neighbors and loved ones in the town and I stand by that. That’s why I keep going.
Q: Which emergency call is most memorable?
A: Back in ’95, when we had the brushfires, you could see the fire burning with the wind behind it go right across four lanes of the Sunrise [Highway]. It was amazing. Just laid right across there and there was no stopping it.
We were over on Riverhead-Speonk Road. I was driving one of the brush trucks and the wind switched and all of a sudden that fire was coming right to us. I said to the four or five guys behind me, “follow me,” and I just went. There was no stopping the fire and no sense in burning the trucks so I took off.
The guys on top who had the nozzles put the fire down in front of the truck and we went right through into the burned area … because it’s not going to take off there again usually.
Q: What part of being a firefighter might people not know about?
A: People don’t understand the amount of time that goes into it. When I started training there were 10 classes, a review and a test. Now it takes you about a year and a half to get through the training.
Q: So there’s a lot more training. New equipment as well?
A: This new gear is fantastic. When I first started, all we had was rubber coats, rubber boots, just rubber. The boot could get wet and full of water. Now with this suit, it protects you from the heat and the elements … We also carry a lot more water. When I started, the truck had maybe 400 or 500 gallons of water. Now we carry a minimum of 750.
Q: What is it like working with your fellow firefighters?
A: You can disagree with people here and there, but when the whistle blows and the fire’s on, everybody is right there. Everybody has your back. We stick together.