Interview with Dave Weaver

Carlisle’s Historical Fires Interview with John Sheaffer

The History of the Carlisle Fire Department    The Union Fire Company

The Cumberland County Historical Society

The following is the transcript of a digitally recorded interview with Fire Chief Dave Weaver of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PA. The interview was conducted by Jillian Boland and took place at the Union Company firehouse on October 29, 2007. Chief Weaver works at a Harrisburg area hospital and has a family in addition to volunteering for the department. He stressed the difficulties of balancing volunteering with the rest of his life. He also discussed the issues facing the department today as well as the company’s emphasis on preserving its past.

Boland: Why did you start volunteering for the Carlisle Fire Department?

Weaver: I moved to Carlisle in 1987. I come from a small town back in Somerset County and I was a volunteer there. My wife and I moved to this area because of employment. My dad was a firefighter and I enjoyed what I did back home. I just like helping people and like the excitement of being a firefighter.

Boland: Have you always volunteered at this station?

Weaver: I started volunteering in 1989.

Boland: And as fire chief what are your responsibilities?

Weaver: There’s a lot. You’re responsible for maintaining records, which would be of fires or calls that we respond to. I am responsible for training and recording any training records that we have, and of course delegate to my officers. Our captain basically does a lot of the paperwork for me, and I utilize our officers a fair amount. I am also responsible for assisting with budgets with our president and started going to different meetings throughout the week. We have municipalities that we service so we try to go to their meetings to answer any questions that they have or any concerns, rather than always showing up at their meetings asking for money. We try to go to meetings here and there just so that they know who we are and that we’re not always asking for money.

Boland: How often do you train and what does training involve?

Weaver: We at least train here, we have in-house training, and that’s twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 7-9. That can involve videos, it can involve going out, and if we have houses available, maybe smoking up the house. We can just train or practice. It’s a variety. We also have town and local training, and through Harrisburg Area Community College, state training that is above and beyond the two nights a month. That can be live burns in their structures that they have. It could be just the whole gamut of training that you need for a fire department.

Boland: How many people volunteer here?

Weaver: We usually use the number of 20 to 25 active members. When I say active, that’s somebody that comes in and is issued turn out gear after they prove that they’re going to be an active member. And active is that they take part in a quarter of our meetings a year, ten percent of our fire calls, or half of our fundraising, which is the car shows, maybe a car wash here and there, and chicken barbeques.

Boland: Why do you think most people volunteer?

Weaver: I don’t know. I just think the firefighters or the volunteers, they like the community that they’re in, they like to give back to the community. And like I said, I mean, as weird as it sounds, it’s fun. You hear this on certain movies, I think it was on Ladder 49, there’s some excitement to going into a building that everybody’s running out of. I think a lot of it is you’re born into it. But you’re giving back to the community. That should be the number one reason.

Boland: Along those lines, what is the best part about volunteering for the fire department?

Weaver: Part of the best part is the camaraderie; the second family. There’s not anybody here that I couldn’t walk in and say, “I need a couple guys to help me move two weeks from now” or maybe you’re down on your luck because of your health, or your income, or something, and you just, it’s the brotherhood, or the family. It’s the second family. I could do that, and somebody else could walk in here and we would return the favor to another member.

Boland: Again, along those lines, what is the worst part about volunteering?

Weaver: Worst part as a volunteer, or worst part as fire chief?

Boland: Either one.

Weaver: I’ll answer both. Part of the worst part about volunteering now – I’ve been volunteering for probably twenty-seven years now, probably the worst part is having to fund a volunteer service. We shouldn’t have to go out and beg and barter and steal to run a volunteer service. The worst part of being fire chief, there’s the times it’s sort of like a kindergarten. You sort of have to try to make everybody happy in the department. We all have our different personalities and we have our different things that set each other off. You’re always sort of trying to move the peapods around just trying to make sure that maybe this guy doesn’t talk to this guy, or this guy the way he approached this guy, just to sort of keep the family happy and cohesive.

Boland: Speaking of funding, how is the department funded and do you rely mostly on fundraisers?

Weaver: We don’t rely on fundraisers as much as some companies. Right down the road, New Kingstown Fire Company, they have, I believe, they have a bingo once a week. They have almost every weekend, if not every other weekend, they have some type of dinner, or they have some type of breakfast. We rely on 10 car shows a year through Carlisle Fairgrounds where we lease property and we charge for overnight parking and daytime parking. A percentage, I couldn’t even give you a percentage, it’s probably thirty or forty percent of our income, but it’s not near what some companies do. A lot of companies, I mentioned New Kingstown, they have a huge Ladies’ Auxiliary. They probably have thirty or forty senior ladies that have grown up through the fire company, either their husband, or sons, or brothers and other men and sisters have been involved with so they’re more of a family or community known fire company. Where in Carlisle, you have more of, it’s more of a business atmosphere. It’s not, “Hey, what’s going on this weekend?” Well, it’s a carnival at the firehouse, or it’s a bingo at firehouse. Carlisle’s just more of a transient hub.

Boland: How many calls do you typically have a year?

Weaver: We run right around a thousand calls a year.

Boland: What are the different types of calls and what are the more frequent ones?

Weaver: The most frequent are what we call the “smells and bells.” The automatic fire alarms, the burnt popcorn, the unattended food. There’s enough smoke to cause the alarm to go off, but we handle a lot of just false alarms. A detector goes off because of lack of maintenance. It’s either dust, or maybe a spider crawled through it, and those are the nuisance calls. Other calls we handle, out of that thousand, we probably handle two hundred auto accidents, maybe two hundred car fires, and I think our average is about 20 structure fires a year. That’s actually where you’re going in, and taking the hoses in, and putting the fire out and such.

Boland: Has the call volume changed with increased trucking in Carlisle?

Weaver: I guess it would have to, but to be honest with you, since I’ve been a member here, there’s always been trucks here. So I would have to say no, but with the warehousing that’s come through, in the last 10 years, there’s just been a boom in warehousing, so we get the nuisance calls there. The automatic fire alarms, the water flow alarms and things like that, but I don’t think we’ve really increased too, too much just because of the trucks. Probably just in development in itself. I mean, residential and industrial around this area just boomed, say in the last 5 to 10 years. So I can’t specifically say because of the trucks, but probably because of the inflation of population, I’m sure it’s increased.

Boland: In addition to fundraising, does the department participate in any charity work?

Weaver: We do, a little. I guess you could look at our charity work as being fire prevention. We do have a budget of roughly two thousand dollars or twenty-five hundred dollars that we specifically buy fire prevention material. Coloring books, pencils, crayons, handouts for the community. We just participated in through 27 News out of Harrisburg and Lowe’s. They have a fire prevention program where they gave us smoke detectors and we in turn can give those to the needy in Carlisle. So I guess we do, but we don’t have something that we say that we have that we specifically throw back into the community other that what we do: our fire prevention and making fire calls.

Boland: I know when I was little, the fire department used to come to the elementary schools, do you do that also?

Weaver: Yes. Actually last week was fire prevention week, and (garbled, can’t understand) calculations I think we came across about 1500 children and adults, parents, that we either toured through the museum or our paid driver, with some personnel, went out to some of the daycare and the kindergartens and the elementary schools. We do that every year and that’s through Carlisle.

Boland: As far as you, what do you do outside of the department?

Weaver: Outside of the department I have a wife and three children. My wife and I have been married over 20 years. I am active with the midget football association for Boiling Springs, which I coached for five years. Right now I’m presently, I’m not coaching anymore, but I am helping right now with, they have a board, and I’m on that board. Other than that, that’s my only other volunteer. Being a firefighter, volunteer firefighter, you don’t have a lot more time to volunteer too much on other events.

Boland: Do you find it hard to balance volunteering, family, and work?

Weaver: Oh yeah, big time. You figure all of our volunteers here 40 hours a week. We have a couple live-in students that are full-time students, and they also work part-time jobs so they’re even more adjusting their schedules. But it is hard. Like I said, you may have three events throughout the week. I might have a training night, a meeting night, and maybe two meetings with municipalities. So that’s 4 out of 7 nights, and yes you have to adjust because my wife isn’t going to sit there and say “Well, geez, you know go ahead, it’s your forth night out.” You sort of prioritize what meetings you might have to go to or what trainings that I might have to be at. And again that’s where I rely on my officers. I can say, “Hey, I know tonight’s training night but I have three other nights that I have to be at other meetings, so I can’t come to training tonight” and they handle the training and make sure that the personnel are educated and taken care of.

Boland: Along those lines, how are schedules structured and how is it decided who will work?

Weaver: There is no, really, schedule or structuring, and we’ve talking about that, but it’s hard to do. I can’t say, “Hey, I’ll be in Tuesday night and volunteer a shift of 3 to 11” because of my family commitments and other things. It’s really just by email and by phones. We sort of have an idea of who’s around. If I go on vacation, I let my deputy chief or my assistant chiefs know that I’m going to be out of town, so they might make themselves more available. But we don’t have, other than our part-time and full-time driver, we don’t have a schedule or a call out schedule that we have people sign in for or are scheduled by me. If the pager goes off and we’re available, one call you might get 2 guys on it another call you might get 13 guys. It just sort of depends on the nature of the call and who’s available.

Boland: Does that ever cause problems? Do you ever have not enough people show up?

Weaver: Luckily, no. You sort of find on the “smells and bells” calls, you really don’t need a lot of people for that. And I don’t expect out of our act of 20 or 25 people that they jump in their car for those 400 calls a year and go to the “smells and bells” call. You can almost tell, sort of like the tone in the dispatcher’s voice, that it’s something that you’re going to be busy on, like an auto accident with entrapment, or a building fire. You’ll see people, our members, will come out of the woodwork to get to those because they know that they need more help, and we need more help. So, so far it hasn’t been a problem. Will it down the road? It might. Depending on diminishing numbers of volunteers, it might be a problem.

Boland: Do think that the Carlisle Fire Department will ever have to go with paid firefighters, or do you think that volunteer firefighting will be able to last?

Weaver: It wouldn’t surprise me that within the next 5 years it’s going to be some type of paid service. We have a minimally paid service now, but I think that you’re going to see with at least 5 years, tops 7 years, that they’re going to have to do some type of staffing. Either some paid people, maybe during the day, whenever I’m at my job, or the other people are at their 7:00-3:00 job or 8:00-5:00 job. But eventually I think, say 10 –15 years, you’re going to see probably a full, full time paid department.

Boland: Do you think that will affect the volunteers, and yourself specifically?

Weaver: I think by the time that happens I’ll be wanting to retire as a volunteer. And unfortunately me retiring or getting out of it after 30 years, there is nothing to show for it. There’s no retirement, there’s no pension, there’s nothing like that. But I think you’ll still have people who want to volunteer will still volunteer. And the nice thing in that is if you have four guys on the engine and two or three guys happen to be volunteer, that gives you seven people. So I think the people will still volunteer, but it might not be as demanding that I have to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and go. This might sound like an attitude, but let the paid guys handle it and if they really need some more help, okay we’ll do it.

Boland: So overall is this a positive experience? Do you enjoy doing this?

Weaver: Oh yeah. Yes. For the 26 or 27 years I’ve been in it, it’s been awesome. The people you meet. I wish I would have maybe gone to more conventions and more seminars on a national level because there’s a lot of neat and interesting people out there. There are a lot of neat chiefs from big departments like Washington D.C. and Chicago and things like that that go to these seminars. They just sit right down with you and they’re just like you, and they’re lucky that they got paid for those 30 years of service they did.

Boland: As far as the department itself, when was the Carlisle Fire Department created?

Weaver: I don’t know the exact year. There’s not a charter, it was declared by Carlisle Council that there should be a Carlisle Fire Department. So you’re not going to find any charter or any written ordinance, it’s an ordinance that was initiated by Carlisle. And basically, they appointed a fire chief. And that fire chief oversaw at that time the five fire companies in Carlisle. And then each one of those five fire companies had their own chief because if the Carlisle Fire Chief wasn’t there, then my rank would be recognized as being the person in charge, or underneath that Carlisle Fire Chief I become like one of his deputies. And I’m not sure what year that was started.

Boland: You mention that there were five companies, and there are only three now, so why did some close?

Weaver: Some closed for financial reasons. Some closed I’m sure because of manpower. You’ll be talking to Johnny Sheaffer, he’ll really be able to help you with the Cumberland because there was the Cumberland and then the Goodwill and they formed then the Cumberland-Goodwill. And they were two fire companies that just merged. Now you’re seeing some mergers because of pressure of politicians. To be one organization is better because you have more resources as far as manpower and the money going into one pot rather than the three or four or five different entities. But I have to say, probably because of manpower and probably some political reasons.

Boland: Why do you think that the Union Fire Company has survived?

Weaver: Because of our leadership and the Union Fire Company for years has just always been aggressive. Back in the day, and even today, there’s a certain competition: trying to be the first one to get there, the first one with the hose line in the door, the first one to put the fire out. There’s still that competition today, but we’ve always been aggressive. Two years ago we bought a new fire truck for about a half a million dollars. We were always known as the engine company, and we didn’t have an aerial device or a ladder truck. Well, two years ago we bought a truck that has a seventy-five foot ladder on it and we took shots for that because it’s like, “Oh now you’re trying to get into the truck work of it” and that was not our intention. Our intention was to, because of diminishing personnel, get a more functional piece to keep up with the growing population and the residents and the industry in the area. When you pull into a million square foot warehouse, that little fire truck, and even with us having a seventy-five foot ladder on it, isn’t going to put that fire out, but it just us a better resource to handle that situation.

Boland: Are there different jurisdictions for the three stations or are you all in charge of Carlisle?

Weaver: No. What they’re called is box areas. It’s like a grid work throughout the town, and it’s divided up just on location of where your firehouses are and sort of main thoroughfares like Hanover Street and Louther Street. I’m sorry. Hanover Street and High Street are a big division. And then they just sort of plot what areas are handled by what companies. In Carlisle, at most of our incidents all three fire companies go on that call unless it’s something small, like a car fire, you might get two engines on it. If somebody gets hit by a car, a pedestrian accident, you’ll have an ambulance and a fire truck go to that rather than three fire trucks and a ladder truck and a rescue. It just depends on what the nature of the call is.

Boland: Do you have an ambulance here?

Weaver: No. Cumberland-Goodwill has the EMS side of it, and they also offer the rescue service. But they handle all of the EMS. We’ll occasionally go out on more serious incidents where they might need some help working on the patient, or with some of the higher rise buildings, three or four floor buildings, where they have a heavier patient. We’ll go help lift if the EMS need help getting the patient out of the house.

Boland: Even though you don’t have the EMS, is everyone here CPR certified, or First Aid certified?

Weaver: Yes. We have basic first aid and we at least require that, and that could just be recognizing that somebody’s bleeding and trying to put pressure on it, or helping with collars with people with cervical injuries. And then we do have some people who are ACLS certified and more advanced First Aid. And then we do have some EMTs that are on our rigs also.

Boland: When was the Union Fire Company itself created, and have you always been in this building?

Weaver: We were created in 1789 actually, 14 days before George Washington was elected President. I just found that out probably 5 years ago. I was listening to a tour one of our senior members gave, and when he said that, I was thinking, “Well, geez, George Washington was President like 600 years ago.” This is actually our third building that we’re located in now. Our first building was in a wagon shed located behind the courthouse, the old courthouse up on Hanover and High, and it burned down. I don’t know the dates, like I said, when you talk to Johnny Sheaffer, and even down in some of our history downstairs, you can even find a story about that. Then we moved to Louther Street, across the street from our building now, and I think that building burned also, but I’m not sure. Then we moved into the building that was built in 1889 and that’s currently part of our museum now.

Boland: How long has the station had a museum?

Weaver: Since, hmm, I don’t know. I know it’s been since I’ve been here, since 1989, but it was well-established before that. We had to sort of move out of that because of the apparatus getting larger and the building just wouldn’t fit the apparatus.

Boland: And why was the museum started?

Weaver: We were lucky that we realized that we had, that our forefathers had preserved our history. When the Great Depression went through, we didn’t have to sell a lot of our archives and a lot of our pictures to maintain, so it’s sort of a dedication to our forefathers that started the company. We lived through 9/11 and certain events in our lives that were tragic, but they lived through the Great Depression. They lived through the horse-drawn days. They lived through the days where they had to pull the cart, pull the hose cart or the wagon to the fire. And we have to remember that wasn’t on a paved road, or a cement road. That was probably on a cobble stone street at best, and once you got out of town, it probably turned into a muddy dirt road. So they were our forefathers. Those were the guys that did the work. Firefighting today, compared to what they did, today it’s easy. What they did was just unbelievable.

Boland: How many people do you think come visit the museum?

Weaver: We started taking records on that, probably, very detailed records, in the last 2 years. We probably see, I’d say anywhere from 300 to 400 to 500 people a year that come through. And we don’t charge for that because it’s not our part of it. It’s what we give back to the public to show them what our history was.

Boland: Do you think it helps them understand the time and effort that you put into this?

Weaver: I think it shows them a timeline, but I don’t think anybody understands the effort. I don’t think a lot of our politicians understand the effort. I think people in general take us for granted. You might have a house fire, and we had this, we had a house fire two years ago, that two children passed away in the fire and there was one infant that survived that one of our firefighters pulled out. And you saw that in the headlines in the newspaper for a day, and then we went back to normal. I just think people take it for granted.

Boland: Do you think that could ever change, and how do you think it could?

Weaver: I think it can, but unfortunately it gets back into a time issue. When you talk to people, counsel people, supervisors, municipal leaders, they tell you it’s up to us to educate people. Well, I have a meeting tonight and I have another one tomorrow and I made a couple calls last night. It’s at where you sort of have to prioritize things. And yes it’s a priority, but we just don’t have time right now to go out and talk to all your civic organizations, to your rotaries, or going out to all the townships that we serve and try to convince them because it’s not going to be one half our meeting sitting down saying to you, “Hey, Jill. Here’s what we do for the community. Here’s how much money we save. Here’s what we do day in and day out.” And they’re going to be like, “Huh, okay.” Then we’ll have to go meet with them again, and again, and again, and it takes some time.

Boland: You mentioned past fires. What are some famous and, or historical fires that you know of, or any memorable ones from the time you’ve been here?

Weaver: The two that I was involved with, and John Sheaffer will be able to give you a lot of the neat, bigger fires, but we had a fire on High Street, West High Street, that burned three or four buildings, and that was, I forget the date actually, but it was several weeks before Christmas and left like 52 people without a house and without any belongings. It turned out it was an arson fire that started in a restaurant downstairs and it was just a big fire. It started like at 3 o’clock in the morning and I think we left probably 3 o’clock in the afternoon the next day. But there was the Bowman’s fire, it was in 1962. I wasn’t even born then. But we have pictures of it downstairs. There are several fires that Randy Watts and John Sheaffer will be able to touch base with you. But we don’t have like a lot of big fires anymore. It seems like maybe our fire prevention is working. We have what’s called “room and contents fires,” where you sort of get called, and there’s smoke from the window, and we go in and we’re really aggressive. We maintain that fire to maybe a room, or a closet, or to a kitchen, and I think a lot of that, too, might be building materials. There are different codes and stuff helping us do our job because the building is better.

Boland: Is there anything else that you think should be mentioned?

Weaver: There’s probably a lot that can be mentioned, but we don’t have enough time to go into that. I just think that if I really had to preach about something it would be how for granted we’re taken. Like I said, we do some fundraising, we do a letter that we send out and then less than 20% of the people send us money, but we go out and talk to people and say, “Well, geez, you know, only one in four have sent money. How about if we just put a fire tax on?” To help us so we can get rid of the fundraising, so that I don’t have to sit here and prioritize different things. So I can go be with my family and I can go and just hang out at the firehouse like I want to. I didn’t join the fire company 27 years ago to come in and cook chickens. That certainly wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that was part of it, but now as I’m getting older, I’m getting wiser and I’m getting to the point where money isn’t a real issue, it’s more time. Time, as you get older, you just realize that you don’t have enough time. [laughs] But that would be it.

Boland: Thank you.

Carlisle’s Historical Fires Interview with John Sheaffer

The History of the Carlisle Fire Department    The Union Fire Company

The Cumberland County Historical Society