Longtime Wyoming fire chief is turning in his helmet

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2013 - 10:51 PM

As head of the volunteer fire department since 1981, Dennis Berry has watched the town grow and change -- and the work of his firefighters with it.

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Dennis Berry, who has led the Wyoming, Minn. Fire department since 1981, is retiring.

When Dennis Berry started with the tiny Wyoming, Minn., Volunteer Fire Department in 1971, he and the crew responded to about 20 calls a year. They stored one of the firetrucks in the city garage, and firefighters needed to move a bunch of equipment to drive it out.

The department now handles about 30 calls a month with a state-of-the-art operation Berry has been running since he became chief in 1981. Last week, he turned 65 and decided to turn in his chief's helmet.

"I can remember how the wives of firemen would band together during big fires and make sandwiches for them," said his son Greg Berry, an assistant news director for the CBS-TV affiliate in Birmingham, Ala.

While there weren't any female firefighters for much of Berry's career, Wyoming now has five on staff, including the 18-year-old daughter of the department's assistant chief.

But that's not the only significant change the chief has seen. The department features a new station with more trucks, firefighters are required to have extensive training and state certification, and protective gear has improved dramatically, he said.

"One truck carries more water, equipment and firefighters than the three trucks we used to have," he said.

Following Berry's discharge from the Air Force in 1971, a friend who was already a firefighter and would later become the city's mayor recruited him. He attended his first meeting and was hooked.

Berry's training consisted of nothing more than a yearly fire school course. Every one of the department's 25 firefighters learned "by the seat of your pants," he said. They also had no radios for communication.

"And you received only $18 for each run," he said.

Most firefighters' home telephones had a second ring tone that let them know they were being summoned to a fire or medical run. There was also a red button on the side of the telephone that triggered a siren to alert other firefighters.

At the time, Wyoming was a sleepy town of about 1,200 and consisted mostly of farms, Berry said. His first call involved a fire that quickly destroyed a trailer home. His most devastating run was a car accident in a construction zone on Interstate 35 in the 1980s that killed an infant and a man on leave from the Marines who was getting married.

"I tell firefighters the most dangerous calls we handle are traffic incidents on the interstate," he said.

'Nothing is a routine run'

There are the happy stories, as well. He and a police officer restarted a young girl's heart, and she is alive and well today, Berry said.

"Nothing is a routine run," he said.

On some calls, Greg Berry, his brother and mother would jump in a car to go check the fires out "to see what he was dealing with."

"We always wanted to keep tabs on what he was doing," Greg Berry recalled. He said he and his brother were constantly playing on trucks, pretending they were going on runs while their father was at a meeting or handling official chief duties.

The city's original fire station, built in 1948, was torn down for a drugstore in the late 1970s. The new station was expanded in 2001 to house more equipment. The city has grown to nearly 8,000 people and has a large industrial park, the source of several major fires, Dennis Berry said.

Wyoming has about 30 volunteer firefighters, but it's always an issue to find people who can respond to calls during the day. Firefighters are required to live within eight minutes of the station.

Berry worked as an aircraft maintenance manager for Northwest Airlines for nearly three decades. He would leave work only to supervise large fires, he said.

As chief, he earned $4,000 a year. He had to be re-elected each year, but the next chief will be hired by the city.

Berry will spend his retirement visiting his eight grandchildren and building model World War II bombers. Sue, his wife of 42 years, became very tolerant of the disruption caused by not knowing when the next alarm would sound.

"She grumbled a lot," he said. "Many times alarms would go off in the middle of a meal or when you are entertaining, but you have to leave."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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