Ocean City Honors Career Of Dedicated Public Safety ‘Superman’

Ocean City Honors Career Of Dedicated Public Safety ‘Superman’
Ocean City Honors

OCEAN CITY — Delbert “Del” Baker, Jr. has never tried to count the number of lives he has saved over the course of a career with the Ocean City Fire Department that has spanned more than half his life. But, amazingly, he remembers most of them by name.

Lt. Baker fought through tears this week at City Hall to thank the Mayor and Council and a packed room of his co-workers for honoring his 31 years of service that began as a part-time EMT and radio dispatcher for the fire department in 1984. His career evolved and grew and Baker will undoubtedly be remembered most for his leadership in the creation and the operation of the city’s dive unit and water rescue team, which as he recalls, “started with a few guys wearing their swim trunks underneath their uniforms in case a call came in after the lifeguards went off duty.”

That water rescue team is now more than 50 members strong, according to Baker, and has helped save countless lives in the resort, especially in the shoulder and off season months in the resort when the Ocean City Beach Patrol has closed up shop for the season.

“This has been the greatest job I’ve ever had, and Ocean City is the greatest town to work for,” said Baker in a tear-jerking farewell at City Hall, “but I didn’t make this job great, you all did.”

‘I Wanted To … Keep People Alive’

Young Del Baker pumped gas as a teen at his grandfather’s filling station, and there was one car that always caught his eye — the car belonging to the local funeral director.

“It had blacked out windows and I always remember trying to peek inside and see what was in there,” recalls Baker, “and one day he saw me doing that and invited me to come down to the funeral parlor and see an embalming of a body and learn about the process. So, at 15, I used to ride my bike down to the funeral home and watch and learn about what they did there because I was interested in the human body and science.”

Baker quickly went from being a mere spectator to the funeral director’s assistant, much to the chagrin of his family.

“They thought I was crazy,” he remembers.

Baker recalls being unsettled by the constant grief that comes along with being in the funeral business, and said he was soon drawn to the ambulance service, which was essentially attached to the funeral home at the time.

“I knew I wasn’t suited for simply embalming bodies and caring for the dead,” said Baker. “I wanted to care for the living, and if I could, keep people alive.”

‘The Cape Is Coming With Me’

Baker doesn’t often talk about the lives that he has saved, or the few that he wasn’t able to save over the course of his career, because those moments still weigh on him so heavily, and he remembers them so vividly.

He can still feel the chilly waters of the Atlantic, the crashing waves, the screams of children in duress and the flickering lights that were his only beacon back to the safety of the pitch-black coastal shoreline he was paddling toward, oftentimes, dragging potential drowning victims on his buoy.

In 2006, Baker was one of the first responders in the water for a call about a father and his three daughters who had been sucked out to sea by a rip current. Baker got to the first victim, a young adolescent girl.

“I always try to talk to the victims when I get to them to try and calm them down, but she was just frozen with fear,” recalls Baker. “It was so foggy and the waters were choppy and when I got her back to shore, I remember seeing her mother on her hands and knees praying. I saw that the older girl had gotten back on her own, but I knew we had two more victims in the water, so I got right back out there as fast as I could, but we couldn’t save them.”

While Baker and the rescue team couldn’t save 44-year-old Douglas Martin and his 15-year-old daughter Amy that day, Baker said he’s kept in contact with the family in the years that have followed.

“The mother sends pizzas to the fire house about once a year, and she’s written me heartfelt letters of gratitude for saving her daughter, Mary, who is now in college, that I still cherish to this day. Those moments link you to people forever, and I remember each and every one of them. To be honest, they have impacted my life as much as what I was able to do impacted theirs,” Baker said.

Baker’s professionalism, preparedness and panache have always been lauded by his colleagues, as he is known for being a stickler for not only the service to the community, but how you look while you do it.

“You need to look good when you are out in the community, and you need to realize that you are a representation of the town you are serving,” said Baker. “Looking good is two thirds of what we do.”

But Baker says he’s also been lucky at times, and that luck has become folklore amongst his co-workers.

“On many calls, I would somehow be very close to where the call came in, so I would end up at the scene first in many cases,” said Baker. “They started calling me Superman because they joked that I must’ve flown to the scene to get there so quickly. Now that I’m leaving, I told those guys that the cape is coming with me.”

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Del Baker still wakes up on the days he would normally be heading into work. After 31 years of the “24 hours on-24 hours off” schedule that Fire/EMS workers uphold, he admits it’s going to be tough to get back to what some would deem to be a “normal” schedule.

“I still go in and have coffee with the guys, and wake up when it would normally be my day to go in,” said Baker. “I was always first to get to work, and I know that I’m going to miss it very much. My wife is probably going to have to get used to having me home every night because I have a tendency to snore and I think she’s going to have to get used to losing those two perfect nights of sleep.”

A shoulder injury sustained while fighting a downtown fire several months ago forced Baker to consider the word “retirement” a few years sooner than he would’ve liked. But now, as he looks back on a career that’s seen him charging into life threatening situations and pulling people from otherwise fatal predicaments, Baker’s unbridled passion for the position he is reluctantly leaving and his unwavering loyalty to the town that has given him so much is nothing short of admirable to some, and downright inspirational to others.

“I’m going to take a long summer vacation because I never got to take one of those,” said Baker, “but beyond that, I know I still have a lot of things that I can do, and I have a lot of experience that I can pass on to the next generation of Fire/EMS workers.”

Ocean City has likely not seen the last of its sharp-dressed hero, Lt. Del Baker, but for now, a community says thank you and goodbye to a longtime civil servant who rides off into the proverbial sunset of retirement with the metaphorical cape he’s taking along with him.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.