Fire chief reflects on nearly 50-year career

Bob Hildreth

Robert Hildreth, 66th Civil Engineering Division fire chief, official portrait. (U.S. Air Force photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Since 1969, Bob Hildreth, Hanscom’s fire chief, has committed his professional life to protecting the lives of those in the community he lived in.

Hildreth is set to retire March 31 after serving 24 years on active duty, five years in the private sector improving fire protection for commercial property and the past 20 years as a federal civilian at Hanscom.

He enlisted in the Air Force after receiving a draft notice four days after graduating from high school.

“Instead of being drafted, I chose to follow my own path and joined the Air Force,” he said. “I originally wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force, but went into the fire protection field instead.”

During firefighting training, he quickly developed a passion for the job while at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois.

“During nine weeks of fire training school, and the challenges they put us through, I knew it was going to be an interesting career that I’d enjoy very much,” Hildreth said. “I didn’t realize my career would span nearly 50 years.”

When asked how much the job has changed since he first enlisted, Hildreth discussed safety-related changes, such as riding in the back of responding vehicles to currently riding in the cab.

“We used to ride on the back of the trucks when the bell rang. Once while jumping on I was still trying to get my jacket on and I inadvertently grabbed the hose and fell right off,” he said. “Today all responding firefighters ride inside the cab.”

He also highlighted how fire safe home construction, firefighting equipment and other aspects of the career are much better today.

“The equipment we wear to fight fires is much better today than 50 years ago,” he said.

He also spoke about the opportunities he’s had during his career, such as while assigned in 1986 to Royal Air Force (RAF) Alconberry in Great Britain, Hildreth was an extra in the film, “The Last Days of Patton,” portraying a World War II service member.

He first came to Hanscom in January 1990 as a master sergeant. He spent more than three years here before retiring in 1993.

Following his retirement, Hildreth worked for a company that installed sprinkler systems.

“One of the jobs we fabricated pipes for was the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York,” he said. “I signed my name on one of the pipes so that I can say my name is in the hall of fame, albeit in the basement.”

After being laid off in 1998, Hildreth returned to Hanscom as a federal civilian to be the assistant fire chief of operations.

“My first job back as a civilian was supervising one of two shifts in the operations side of the department,” he said. “Back in those days, we were 40 percent military and 60 percent civilian. In 2000 we transitioned to all civilians.”

Hanscom’s senior fire official is thankful for the opportunities he’s had while at Hanscom.

“This position has given me the opportunity to reach the top of our program as fire chief,” a position Hildreth has held since 2005. “It’s been an honor to lead this group of professionals,” he said.

During his tenure, Hanscom has won Best Small Fire Department in Air Force Materiel Command nine times.
Hildreth attributes that success to many things, including an effective fire prevention program.

“We have a tremendous fire prevention program that’s been very successful in educating the Hanscom community,” he said. “We’ve devoted a lot of our time during my tenure as chief in educating kids in the base schools.”

Hildreth also discussed the partnerships Hanscom has with local towns.

“The mutual aid between Hanscom and the local towns is critically important to each department,” he said. “It’s been a great partnership between the base and our colleagues in the local area.”

He highlighted that, throughout his nearly 50-year career, he’s had the opportunity to work with some great people.

“I have been fortunate throughout my military and civilian career to be supported by a great bunch of professionals, in both careers,” said Hildreth. “They have trained hard and adapted to many changes over the years and have always been ready to respond to any emergency.”

While the fire chief will not have an official retirement ceremony, members of the community are welcome to the Minuteman Commons Tavern March 30 at 4:30 p.m. for an informal gathering. For those interested in attending, please contact Mark Webb at 781-225-6201 or 781-225-3330.

After retiring, Hildreth wants to spend more time traveling and with his children and grandchildren, who live in New York.