SMYRNA — Seeing the “help wanted” sign outside the Citizens’ Hose Co. No. 1 fire station always drew Denise King’s attention and eventually prompted her to answer the call.
She couldn’t do it alone, however. Ms. King knew her teenage son, Gabriel, would be just as ready to volunteer time to serve his community as a firefighter.
“Since the age of 3, we have visited almost every station in Kent County, and he knows all the trucks, so it really sparked the interest in me,” she said. “I waited until he was 16, which is when he could join as a junior member.”
And now, the Kings are graduates of the New Castle County Fire Academy. They were the first mother-and-son duo to complete the classes together at the academy.
It wasn’t easy — 224 hours of classes (held every Tuesday and Thursday and every other weekend for four months) were required to graduate. A commencement ceremony was held May 27.
Gabriel, who is on the autism spectrum, said that attending the academy with his mother was “great. It wasn’t really a bad thing. ... It really helped me because I had someone who knew my strengths and weaknesses and someone who knew how (to) help get me through all the obstacles.”
In a time when new firefighters are hard to attract, the Kings were more than welcome additions to their hometown department, 2nd Assistant Chief Gary Shane said.
“They’ve done a great job. It’s wonderful to have them. They are both wonderful people,” he said. “They’re hard workers and show up for almost everything. I really applaud them for (succeeding in the fire academy). That’s a tough job. It’s a hard course to go through.”
Gabriel, now 17, concurred, saying the academic rigors of the academy were the most challenging part, especially when balancing his studies as a junior at Smyrna High. He’s also a member of the school’s drumline and of the Air Force ROTC program.
“Overall, though, it was a really good experience, and I’d do it 10 times over again if I had the opportunity,” he said.
The Kings now hold Delaware State Fire School certificates for basic firefighting skills, structural firefighting, hazardous-materials response, vehicle rescue, water rescue and American Heart Association first aid and CPR.
For Gabriel, “My main drive in joining the fire service was that I like helping people. I just want to be the one (who) can show up on a person’s worst day, the worst time in their life, and help them in some way.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen firetrucks going by, firefighters doing their job, and it’s always been a dream to be one of them one day.”
His mother, who led her recruit class in saying its class mantra and motto at commencement, said she’s similarly drawn to assist “someone in their darkest hour, to really show up for our community. I’ve had experiences in life where people have shown up for me, so I just wanted to give back.”
A former active and Reserve member of the U.S. Army, Ms. King said she knew the program “was something that would challenge me physically, as well as mentally, and I was just kind of up for the challenge. It was just the right time for it.”
Now, the Smyrna fire company and others need more members of the public to answer the alarm, as the King family did.
“Nationwide, the fire service is hurting for manpower,” Assistant Chief Shane said. “That’s not just Smyrna, not just Kent County, not just Delaware. That’s nationwide.
“Both sides (firefighting and the administrative duties), it’s hard to get people who want to come up and donate time, volunteer time. It’s a big commitment, and it says a lot for the people who do it,” he added.
“I’m not saying it’s a generational thing or anything like that. It’s just that there’s so much on everybody’s plate right now.”