As a fifth-generation fireman, Chief Allen Huelsenbeck stems from a long lineage of service. Known to his peers as Big Al, Chief Huelsenbeck was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey as the oldest of 7 children. Chief’s father was a civil defense fireman and his grandfather was a Captain in Elizabeth, NJ. As a child, he remembers his grandfather coming home from the firehouse after his last day of 28 years of service. Some of Chief Huelsenbeck’s siblings also followed their family tradition of service. His sister was a lieutenant with the Kodiak, Alaska Fire Department. One of his brothers was a fireman and another one of his brothers served in the United States Coast Guard as a Damage Control Chief. Chief also has two daughters that were EMTs. A close cousin Deputy Chief Jon Pratchthauser from Morristown N.J. recently retired as well. 48 years ago, Chief Huelsenbeck moved to Wilmington, Delaware. In 1972, he was hired as a fireman for the city of Wilmington. When he started, there was no such thing as RIT and accountability, a radio for each person, or SCBA and masks for every man. This was the three-quarter boot, canvas coat, and metal helmet era of firefighting. When asked about not having a mask or SCBA on the fireground, chief replied “it made you a great fire survivalist”. Chief Huelsenbeck spent 8 years as a fireman, 3 years as a lieutenant and 3 years as a captain before he was promoted to Battalion Chief at the age of 35. For 25 years, Chief Huelsenbeck would work as a battalion chief. Toward the end of his career he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Operations. He spent around 2 years in this position before retiring in 2013 with a total of 41 years of service to the city of Wilmington.
These are some of the badges and shields that have been worn by Chief and the members of his family.
During his 41-year career, Chief Huelsenbeck saw an immense amount of change. He was a part of the first generation to wear hoods and Nomex turnout coats. When asked what he thought the greatest change to the fire service was throughout his career, he responded “the mandatory mask rule” because of how many firefighters he believes it has saved over the years. It wasn’t a totally smooth transition as a lot of firefighters pushed the limits of the mask and SCBA and began to go deeper into fires than ever before. In his opinion, the worst change has been the gradual decrease in staffing numbers since he started. Today you are expected to do more with less and it wouldn’t hurt to have more firefighters on the fireground. Chief Huelsenbeck saw the vast changes made to the incident command system over his career and he was always open to testing different techniques and trying new things to see how he could improve the way he commanded a scene. His generation “did not fight fires from a car”. Chief is a huge proponent of education and he was the first firefighter in Delaware to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Fire Service Administration from the University of Maryland. “You have to be good with your head as well as your hands in this line of work". Of all the change he saw over his career, Chief says that the one thing that will never change is “how you learn things” by being around the senior firefighters and listening to what they have to say. “You learn what you need to learn in the fire academy and then you go to your company and learn the way that you really do it”. Chief was also highly involved with change as an integral part of committees for NFPA 1405 (Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires) and 1005 (Standard for Professional Qualifications for Marine Fire Fighting for Land-Based Fire Fighters).
Chief Huelsenbeck has fought countless fires over the 41 years that he spent as a firefighter for the City of Wilmington. As a young firefighter, Chief was able to work as a chief’s aide occasionally which allowed him to gain a great amount of experience that would help him in the future as a battalion chief. As a firefighter and a company officer he gained a large amount of firefighting experience during a time where vacant residential houses were constantly burning. As a battalion chief he commanded around 10 large operation high rise fires, 6 large ship fires, countless hazmat situations, extrications, and technical rescues. 2-3 story road dwellings made up a large amount of the residential structure fires that he fought and commanded over his career. One of his most memorable fire operations that he commanded was a fire on a 575-foot-long ship known as the Centaurus Ship Fire that involved a fire in the engine room. This was the first large ship fire that he was in command of and where he learned how to operate fire scenes in that type of atmosphere. If you watch the video*, you’ll understand the massive size of these ships and the complexities of fighting fire aboard them. You’ll also be able to see a younger Battalion Chief Huelsenbeck at work. Unfortunately, while in command of a different fire, Chief Huelsenbeck lost one of his men to a cardiac related LODD. Throughout Chief Huelsenbeck’s career, he has been the recipient of many awards, with one of them being the VFW’s lifesaver award for being in command of a fatal high-rise fire where over 200 occupants were rescued. “It wasn’t me, it was my men” was the response from Chief Huelsenbeck when asked about the award. Speaking of his men, Chief was described by one of his firefighter brothers as “a great leader and a well-respected fireman”. These are only a few examples of the experience and reputation that Chief Huelsenbeck has gained over the course of a career stretching more than 4 decades. This is the type of experience that you do not gain in a classroom, only on the fire-ground.
Some of you probably saw the photo of a fire chief smoking a cigar on the scene of a structure fire. The cigar smoking incident commander in the photo is Chief Huelsenbeck. He explained the significance of smoking a cigar on the scene of a fire. When Chief Huelsenbeck was in command of a fire scene, his crews knew that “if the old man was smoking a lit cigar” then he was “celebrating the fact that we got it”. This didn’t mean that the job was done or that they could pack up and leave but it meant that they were on the right track and were doing a good job. This was a tradition started by Chief Huelsenbeck’s friend and former Chief of Wilmington FD Sean Mulhern. In case you were wondering; Chief’s favorite cigar is a Rocky Patel Gordo.
In retirement, Chief Huelsenbeck stays busy. He is a life member of the Elsmere Fire Company and the Christiana Fire Company. The Christiana Fire Company is a very busy combination fire department that ran 10,772 medical and 3,574 fire runs last year out of 3 stations. Chief is also the president of the Tri-State Maritime Safety Association. This association provides training for maritime disasters with the most memorable being the Panama Canal Fire Department and responds to these calls as a Marine Incident Response Team to provide support for command and logistics. It was awesome to speak with a man who is so involved in the job even after almost 50 years in the fire service. The kind of leadership, fireground knowledge, humility, and sheer saltiness that Chief Huelsenbeck has acquired does not happen overnight. Attaining that level takes years of hard work, dedication and passion for the job. When asked about his career in the fire service, Chief replied “I liked it when I started and loved it when I left”.
It was fantastic to talk with Chief Huelsenbeck about his experience in the fire service. I learned so much in just the 2 hours that I spoke with him. I hope we can all be at least half the fireman that Chief Huelsenbeck is.