Achieving a dream: Chief Benkwitt, 23-year PFD vet, went on calls with uncles as kid


Madison Cohen

Robert Benkwitt III, Pelham fire chief, always imagined he’d become a firefighter when he grew up.

Pelham Fire Chief Robert Benkwitt III didn’t so much chase after fire engines as a kid, as tag along.

Benkwitt grew up in Pelham with two uncles who were volunteers with the Pelham Fire Department.

“Years ago, we used to have this fire horn that blew to tell people where the fire was, and my uncles lived down the block from me, so if I got out in time, they would take me to the calls with them, and that is how I got interested,” said Benkwitt.

That childhood interest turned into a 23-year career with the department, capped off with Benkwitt’s promotion to chief at the end of May. He took over from Chief James DiNapoli, who retired after 33 years in the fire service, 22 of those in Pelham. Before being named chief by the Village of Pelham board, Benkwitt served as the department’s first captain, the number two position created in February.

When he was 18, Benkwitt took the Westchester County civil service exam for firefighters, and on his 21st birthday, he got a call from the Pelham department asking if he wanted the job.

For Benkwitt, being a firefighter isn’t about being cool, even though that comes along with the job. He said he’s able to give back to his community and help people in times of need.

“Because I grew up in Pelham, I know a lot of the people that I have been on calls at their homes, and it makes it personal,” said Benkwitt. “They’re having their worst moment or their worst day, and they see a familiar face. It helps them to settle down a little bit.”

Teamwork is a big part of being a firefighter. It’s critical to saving lives.

“I love the guys I work with,” Benkwitt said. “They are really great. The majority on the job grew up in Pelham. There are only a few guys who are not from Pelham, but they are from the area. (There’s a) sense of community and brotherhood, giving back to the community.”

Benkwitt is responsible for all the personnel in the firehouse, the budget, day-to-day operations, making policies, working with the village administration and interacting with the public.

During his career, he served as fire prevention officer, also called fire and life safety educator. In that role, he went to schools, talked to students about fire safety and did demonstrations for Cub Scouts.

Benkwitt said when people think of a firefighter, they think of a person who puts out fires. However, they do much more. Members of the department are all emergency medical technicians and go on medical calls when people are hurt or sick. They also deal with hazmat situations and extrications at car accidents.

“It’s not just firefighting anymore,” he said. “It’s a lot of different aspects. It’s also that you don’t stop learning to get to where I am now. I had to take a lot of classes, and there are classes that I will continue to take even as the chief because there are still a lot of things that I still need to learn and work on.”

This story originally ran in the print edition of the Pelham Examiner.