MILFORD, Del. (AP) — Donning an air mask and heading into a blaze without hesitation, hose in hand — that’s one way to earn respect as the newest volunteer in your fire department.
Such was the case for Shawn Hinton in 2004, when he joined the Carlisle Fire Co. in Milford as a 17-year-old junior firefighter, according to Charles Vanaman, chief of the agency at the time. “Shawn was always one that never backed down from a challenge. As far as fires or car accidents, he was right in the middle of everything,” he said.
That determination, intelligence and respect — which the new chief gives to his peers and, in return, has earned over time — helped him climb the ranks of the two-centuries-old institution. As a result, in December 2022, members of the fire company voted to make him their leader, the first Black man to serve in the position.
He was sworn in Jan. 4.
“I think it’s a long time overdue for him — to be in such a position of leadership. And I’m really excited about this year and looking forward to the future,” said Brennon Fountain, deputy chief and lifelong friend. Chief Hinton, 36, has lived in Milford all his life, actively serving his community for most of it. Besides volunteering much of his time at Carlisle, he also spent years involved in 4-H programs run out of the University of Delaware, including one for mentoring at-risk youths.
“I’ve always gotten out of bed for the community. I’ve always skipped dinner for the community,” Chief Hinton recalled while in one of Carlisle’s meeting rooms, surrounded by portraits of volunteers and pieces of fire company history. “I’ve always done it for the community, just to be able to give back, to be able to assist. It’s nice to see, when you help somebody, and they’ve got a smiling face on afterwards. And it’s also a good feeling to help somebody who’s in need.”
Deputy Chief Fountain and Mr. Vanaman both described Chief Hinton as an experienced firefighter, with qualities that make him well suited to being a leader, as well as a good friend. “He’s just one of those guys that, when … you hang out, you just want him around. He’s fun to be around,” Deputy Chief Fountain said. He added that Chief Hinton is the kind of person who does not lose sight of himself with newfound authority. “Sometimes, when you’re at the top, I feel like some people forget that, just because you have that authority, (not) to lose respect for other people. I’ve watched him respect others and also gain their respect,” he said.
He also described Chief Hinton as “kind of soft-spoken.” “We get on him a lot about that,” the deputy chief said.
When he first joined the department, the future chief learned a lot by emulating leaders. “He’s like a sponge,” Mr. Vanaman said. One of those leaders was Kevin Pettyjohn, Chief Hinton’s uncle and best friend of Deputy Chief Fountain. He served at Carlisle for more than 40 years before his passing July 30, 2022.
Chief Hinton recalled seeing his uncle head off to calls in one of the company’s firetrucks and his being “ecstatic” when his nephew first became an officer in 2013, attaining the rank of captain. “I can remember that pretty distinctively,” Chief Hinton said, “that smile on his face.”
Among the other roles he has served in was the department’s head archivist, playing part in organizing an event celebrating the history of the Carlisle Fire Co. in partnership with the Milford Museum. And now he’s a large part of that history himself. As Carlisle’s first Black chief since the agency’s founding in 1802, he said he is still figuring out just what that means to him.
“To be honest, it feels just as if I was an assistant chief or deputy chief,” he said. “(But) it’s definitely a historical thing. I never looked at it that way, but to be able to serve my community and be able to continue to strive on is the better feeling.” Chief Hinton said he seized the right moment in his life to run for chief — he has a 7-month-old daughter and doesn’t want to miss any of the big moments in her life. Meantime, his goals include improving response times and preparing every member for leadership roles.
“I’m definitely looking forward to building this department into the next level for the future of the department,” he said. “The city is growing, so the department must grow.”
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