The following is the transcript of a digitally recorded interview with volunteer firefighter John Sheaffer of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PA. The interview was conducted by Jillian Boland and took place at the Union Company firehouse on November 1, 2007. The purpose of the interview was to find out more about the history of the Carlisle Fire Department, past fires, and the future of volunteerism in Carlisle.
Boland: How are you affiliated with the Carlisle Fire Department?
Sheaffer: I’m a member of the Union Fire Company currently a driver, previously a chief for 37 years. I originally joined the Cumberland Fire Company in 1970. Down on E. Louther Street. I left there in 1976, and came up here and joined. I was also chief down there for a year. I came up here and was a member for a year, or two. I became chief here for two, or three Years, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve always been active.
Boland: What made you interested in volunteering?
Sheaffer: A family thing. I’m either fourth or fifth generation, I don’t know. My dad’s 85, and he tells these stories, but I have one of my great great something uncles was a paid firefighter down in Harrisburg, in the city, he drove a ladder truck. My great-great uncle Mike Smith did drive down at Cumberland Fire Company from the teens to the 1940s. My grandfather joined in 1918 and was active until 1975 or ‘76 in the fire company, obviously administratively because he was older.
Why I actually joined the fire company was to be able to drive with my grandfather while he was active, and there was three generations at the firehouse. I always was chasing fires ever since I was a little kid. When you grew up in Carlisle there wasn’t as much to do as there is now. We didn’t have the malls and the Internet. We basically played at the park, cops/robbers, army, or whatever. Played football, sports, hide and seek, simple games like that, but always when the fire siren blew, we always ran up to the firehouse to see where the fire truck went. It was just something you did as a kid. When I was a little kid, the Cumberland Fire Company was down here, and I lived like three blocks down from it in the East end of town. The roof siren would go off in the middle of the night and would always get up and run to the front of our house and look outside because you’d see a glow in the sky. Most were nothing, just some small fire and I just went back to bed, but I remember numerous fires, especially the Bowman’s fire, the sirens blowing and running to the front of the house and looking out and there was this huge glow in the sky. I was only 8 or 9 years old. Of course my dad was active, but I went along and just stood back and watched. I remember doing that as a kid all the time. You’d go to the firehouse, the ones with a glow in the sky you want to go see, you could follow the fire trucks around town because every time they turned the corner, they lost some water out of the water tanks.
Boland: What do you do outside of the department?
Sheaffer: I’m a 911 dispatcher, started in 1974. Went to college for police science, graduated. There was a few members of the Cumberland Fire Company that worked at the 911 center, which at that time was in the basement of the courthouse. The pay was average, good benefits; I started working there, and I never left. I became a supervisor in 1977, worked that position until 1998, and I became a manager, and now I don’t work at the 911 center anymore. I’m actually operations manager for the 911 center of the county, working Monday through Friday. I’m also permitted to leave work to drive fire apparatus, which occurred ever since I got taken out of the 911 center. I do come up and drive apparatus because there are some situations here where we need volunteer drivers.
Boland: Do you find it hard to balance between life as a volunteer and your
life outside of the department?
Sheaffer: It’s real hard. You go through peaks and valleys of involvement. Right now I’m in a valley of not doing it since probably February or March.
Last year I finished fifth as far as run totals with the members, which, we’re talking a thousand calls. I was there for 250 or 260 calls. Very involved, it burnt me out a little bit, and it just got to a point where I have to quit this, no physical issue or real stress, it’s just like I’ve just got to change. I can’t do this until I’m 60 years old. So I took a break, I’m still in break mode. But as far as mixing it in, you get caught up in worrying about everything too much. You worry about the engine getting out, or this isn’t fixed, or the engine needs to be fixed. I’m involved with the apparatus committee. And the next thing you know it starts to overwhelm you, and you just have to back away. Someone else has to pick up the slack, not saying that I did everything. I didn’t really feel that until these last couple of months. That’s the first time I really went away from the firehouses. I was here a lot. I didn’t live here or hang out, but I was here a good bit actively as far as chasing calls.
Boland: What is the best thing about volunteering?
Sheaffer: Well, everybody always says, or the key line is, ‘I want to help others.’ Well, yes, I want to help others, but that didn’t bring me here to help someone. That’s just part of it. I think it was the activity and the people you met, and the camaraderie, and the teamwork I enjoy. I don’t want anybody’s house burnt down. I enjoy coming here and working with the guys and helping out and feeling like you’re a part of a team. To me going to a fire is a competition; you want to do better than the other fire companies. The bottom line is all that tied in together is helping the community and it is helping other people. But no, my motive was never to go help people. Everybody says, “Well, I love helping others.” I do, but that’s not the motive for me being here. It’s a social thing, and helping others falls into it because
that’s what this is.
Boland: Along those lines, what is the worst thing about volunteering?
Sheaffer: You intermix with people, some who don’t help and some who do. There’s friction that develops in volunteering amongst the people. It’s hard for a leader of a fire company to keep everybody focused and not at each others’ throats. I’m not saying it’s like that all the time in the fire service but it is a tough thing because it’s like you’re running a football team. If one of the linemen is making two million and the other lineman is making $500,000 well guess what, the $500,000 lineman might lay down once in a while. Well, it’s the same thing in the firehouse. Nobody gets paid anything, but if you, in your mind, you’re doing a lot, and there’s four people who are not doing anything, and they’re getting treated the same way. That for me is the hardest part is keeping people motivated, treating everybody the same.
Boland: Now to talk about history, which is why you’re here. When was the
Carlisle Fire Department started and why?
Sheaffer: The Union Fire Company originated in 1789. It was obviously to save lives and property. I do not know if there was ever a big event that caused this to occur. I’m sure there’s some story, but I’ve never read it.
Boland: You mentioned other companies before. How many other companies have there been or that you can remember?
Sheaffer: Well, there’s Union, Cumberland, Empire, Goodwill, and Friendship. There’s also a sixth one, which no one knows about, but I’ve read about it. I never researched it, called the Alert Fire Company. I read an article from our history when there was a firehouse uptown where the Union and Cumberland were in the same building at the courthouse in 1845, and it burnt down and it also said there was equipment from the Alert Fire Company that was destroyed also. I’ve never heard other than that statement I read somewhere in some book somewhere. Is it fact or fiction? I don’t know. I’ve never heard anybody else say anything about the Alert Fire Company in Carlisle, nor have I read about it, but I wonder why that statement was in some of the things you read, these little histories you read about the Alert Fire Company. It may have something to do with the Cumberland. There were five fire companies in Carlisle: Union, Cumberland was down here on East Louther Street. They were formed in 1809. Goodwill, 1855. Some of these old firehouses are still around town. There’s one down on East Pomfret Street, I think that was the Empire’s. They were formed in 1859. The old Cumberland firehouse is down at Liberty and Bedford. You look and you can tell it’s an old firehouse, but it’s been redone into a house. Friendship was formed in 1911 or 1909, and they were out here on West Street, and their building is still out there also. The old Goodwill firehouse is gone now but the one they had for the longest time was at the intersection of Pomfret and West. Grace Church has an addition where the firehouse used to be. That was there until 1966 when they tore it down and they moved down to Ridge Street. There have been mergers. In 1996 the Empire and Friendship went together. They’re on Spring Road now; they’re called Empire-Friendship. In 1984 the Cumberland and Goodwill went together out on Ridge Street. Union has stayed here ever since. There are now actually three entities. There were dual entities until they merged into one company, and now there are three companies.
Boland: Why did they merge?
Sheaffer: I’d say the big word is financial. The Cumberland Fire Company was an engine company down here on East Louther Street until late 1979. Every company back then had an engine that the borough owned. The borough went to the Cumberland and said we’re going to take away your engine, but they ran a rescue truck, too, which they were allowed to run in the borough and they maintained their appropriation. They were downsizing the fire department. They only needed three engine companies. They had no choice in the matter. They fought it vigorously and they stayed down there. The Goodwill Fire Company was out on Ridge Street; it’s now called Cumberland-Goodwill. They were out there. They were a single engine company. The borough provides money and protection from the borough. The townships around Carlisle, they contract fire service. In other words, the Union Fire Company is contracted to serve Middlesex, Dickinson, and South Middletownships. We’re contracted. We’re given like $30,000 a year. We provide fire protection for those areas. We take our own piece of equipment out; we don’t run the borough equipment out. We can take the borough engine out, but we have to leave our company engine behind. We can take one engine out. It doesn’t matter which one we take. Years ago you could only take the company-owned engine out. We were the only company that had our own company-owned engine; everyone else had borough-owned engines. The Goodwill tried to start a company-owned engine service. They started buying engines and tankers and got themselves up to here in debt. They couldn’t make payments. They were at the point of closing down, so the borough forced a merger between 40 and 44. 44 thought they could last up to the end, but they were closed down basically, and 40 went out there and they merged Cumberland and Goodwill. When that occurred in 1984, basically, Goodwill Fire Company went defunct. Maybe three or four of their people hung around for a couple of years. Five or six years after they merged, the Goodwill Fire Company, their old members were gone young and old all disappeared. The Friendship and Empire, they went together, both of their buildings junk. They needed to be replaced. They did this on their own; the borough didn’t force them into anything. They merged and leased land and they built a firehouse. Now the borough forced them to merge last year. They were out there as two separate entities, two separate bylaws, and two separate groups of officers. The equipment had different names on it – Empire/Friendship – parked in the same building. They worked together, they weren’t battling, but when the borough went in and said you’re merging, well then the battle went on. Now if you go out there the Empire members are gone. Their members have walked off. It is strictly Friendship who runs. Empire-Friendship equipment is all together now. It’s called Empire-Friendship Fire Company. Now when I’m talking the members walked away, it might have been five people. Very, very small. Years ago, when I joined the fire company, when you went to a company meeting, it was nothing down at the Cumberland Fire Company to get 60 people in a meeting. They had food for each meeting, they cooked turkey and hams and everybody came to eat. Everybody in the neighborhood belonged to the firehouse. It was just sort of like the rules were not existent back then. You didn’t have to have all of this training. Everybody ran the fires and got the fire engine and helped. The fires were out and nobody got killed. The Union Fire Company back in 1970 was the same way. I’m sure they had 30 or 40 guys show up for a meeting, and the Friendship got a lot, too. The Empire and Goodwill were always low on numbers. The Empire, they may have gotten a dozen or so good people, and the Goodwill eight or nine. Whereas the Cumberland may have had 30, or 40, and 30 here and 30 here. Of course they were the busier stations and had better personalities. The Cumberland and Union had big attractions
Boland: So the number of volunteers has gone down?
Sheaffer: Oh, it’s horribly low. I wouldn’t even want to put a number on it. If you had a major fire in Carlisle downtown in 1970, it would have been nothing to get 90 guys to come out from 5 companies. Now I don’t think the combined effort of the whole borough showing up once to a major fire would match one of the other group companies back in 1970. Union might have gotten 20 or 30 guys alone; you’re lucky to get 20 or 30 now from all. It’s bad.
Boland: Why do you think that is?
Sheaffer: People have more to do, and you have duel mother and fathers working, and there are no kids working on the fires anymore. It’s not cool to join a firehouse. I’m not saying it isn’t cool, but my boy, here I am a third or fourth generation guy, when I joined the fire company I couldn’t wait to be 16 years old and join that firehouse. That wasn’t my whole life. I went to college, I always kept my grades up, while hanging out at the firehouse waiting for a fire call. Of course there were no malls then, or a movie theatre downtown. Not a lot of partying going on. Everybody in the neighborhood joined because their dads belonged to the fire company. Nowadays, we don’t see any second generation. Nobody comes in here with their kid to ride fire trucks. No one walks in here with their kid on their arm saying, “Hey, I’m here to ride with dad tonight,” like when I was little. Now it’s just not like that anymore. The attraction is not there. A kid when they’re little, they just love fire trucks. That’s because they’re little kids. When they get older, there could be a house burning across the street, and they would watch TV. They wouldn’t even go out and watch. It’s that bad. I don’t know what caused it.
Boland: Why do you believe it is important to record and remember the history of the department?
Sheaffer: I think the history is the backbone of your company, and once again, I hope it doesn’t fall away because people don’t care anymore. I know when I joined the fire company they saved everything. This firehouse is really unique. You see what’s lying around it here. They saved everything. To me it’s a neat history of Carlisle. Just like me, writing these stories down. I would hope somebody some day thirty, forty, fifty years from now reads them, and it puts them in my shoes at that fire, and they just enjoy that thought of what went on there and say that was really neat. I would love to be able to read stories like that from fires from the 1950s, and 1940s, and 1930s, when I wasn’t around. Just the stories I’ve heard, this burned down. I’d like to hear somebody tell me about what when on, what all the guys did, and all the battles over who got there first. The history is very important and I’m a big history buff. My firehouse history is probably only one-third of what I collect. I have the red lights off of one of our old engines. They’re in my bar in my basement and they still work. I have picture albums, and scrapbooks, and old nozzles, and cup links, and mementos. They had a fatal accident here with a fire engine in 1969, and a guy was killed. I was a little, kid and the engine sat down here on Trindle Road in a scrap yard for a little bit. I road my bike down and stole some stuff off the engine. I still have that stuff. It’s down in my basement on my shelves, pieces from that fire engine. I have kept that stuff. I thought it very unique because you’re talking almost 40 years ago, and I still have that stuff. To me, it means something. It’s something to talk about. It’s like you’re touching a piece of history.
Boland: What do you plan on doing with the stuff you have?
Sheaffer: It’s in my will. My will states that if the Union Fire Company is still in existence when I die, and my son doesn’t want it – my son doesn’t care, and he knows that he’s not supposed to get rid of it – it’s in my will that the fire stuff all goes back to Union Fire Company, as long as they are not merged with another fire company. If they’re merged, then it goes to the Historical Society. When the Cumberland Fire Company merged with the Goodwill Fire Company, the Cumberland Fire Company probably had nearly an equal amount of historical stuff in their firehouse. They sold it all for $9,000. They had a fire engine, an unbelievable, sought after piece of fire equipment. It’s a very unique one. They sold the thing for $1,300. It’s now worth $150,000. They sold this to buy chrome wheels for the rescue truck. Their history. They sold their history. It would be like us selling our 1929 LaFrance for $50,000 to buy a hose. Are you crazy? That’s why I’m leery. You don’t know who will be in charge here five years from now. That bothers me. This stuff means something, it does have history to it.
Boland: Getting to the fires that you have prepared, what buildings have burned down that are memorable, and were they rebuilt?
Sheaffer: Well the Cumberland Fire Company would be the one that hit me the most. That was a very involved incident. We lost a friend of mine. I was three blocks from the firehouse. Strand Theatre fire, which was not rebuilt. The Bowman’s Fire. I’m thinking of fires to me that are very unique. The fire on High Street across from the Hamilton. I actually didn’t fight that fire that night. We have a second engine situation down here where somebody will cover the second or rural engine in case we get a rural call. Well I was covering it, I could run back in a minute and get the second engine if we have a rural call. I actually have that fire on tape. Excellent coverage of it, everywhere. Front. Back. Fully-involved. In the alley ways. I’m the only one who taped it. It was just by luck. I gave the first copy of the tape to channel 27 that day, and I had a heck of a time to get it back. You’re supposed to get $27 and your tape back. Well, it was three weeks and the next thing I know, my tape is being used for advertisements. The American Red Cross is showing a downtown fire in Carlisle, and it’s my tape. I got on the phone with 27, and I wound up getting about $200 and my tape back. I was livid. That’s ridiculous. This was for news, not to be sold off for advertisement. As far as buildings, the firehouse fire, Bowman’s on West High Street, the Strand Theatre fire, and the Pomfret Street apartments fire. Anything from 1970 on, I was involved in some way. The fire that was most talked about when I was a little kid. The guys that were around in 1970 were active in the 1950s and 1960s, the older guys, and the ones they talked about. There was one when five kids died in August of 1943. They always talked about the fire on Locust Avenue. They talked about the church burning across from Denny Hall and the Hotel in the same week. That was a big deal. Two big fires in one week. And the Bowman’s fire.
Boland: How did the fires impact the town? Did they impact it economically?
Sheaffer: There’s never been any devastating fire in Carlisle. It’s just been private loss. I don’t know of any fire in Carlisle ever that impacted the borough.
Boland: You mentioned that you lost a friend in a fire. Have there been many Carlisle firefighters who have been hurt or killed?
Sheaffer: There were actually two killed at the firehouse. They were both friends. One was an older guy that had a heart ailment. The other one was actually sleeping in the bunkroom, and he never got out of the building. There was a firefighter killed in an accident at High and East Streets. The current president of our fire company was driving the engine. Allegedly ran a red light and hit a car sideways, broadside, and the engine rolled over. There were three guys on the tailboard, and all three of them were thrown from the rig. The driver was pinned under the engine, and so was the guy who was killed. When the engine rolled over, the engine rolled and spun itself around on its roof. It was an open cab, there was no roof actually. It spun around and slid down the street a little bit. When it did that, the steering wheel kept the driver in place, and when it rolled over, it kept him there, but when the engine slid, it dragged him out across the hood. He was pinned under the engine, still conscious. The guy who was riding in the front seat fell out of the engine when it rolled over, and the engine went over on top of him, literally, and he was killed on the spot. And the three guys who were in the back were moderate injuries. The driver broke his arm; it was caught under the windshield. There’s actually a picture in the museum of him lying under the engine. You can see his coat. The father of the guy who was killed actually later on became president of the fire company. When I joined the fire company, his dad was president in 1976. I never ever heard them say a word about Vince, never talked about him. There was never animosity between Pete, the driver, and him. Pete was Vice President. One or two people have asked Pete what happened. I always wanted to know how. I hate to ask him, but he might be happy to tell me some day. That always intrigued me. What happened?
Boland: How has the department changed since you’ve been here as far as equipment or protocol?
Sheaffer: When I joined the fire company in 1970 the procedures and mentalities were very similar to what they were probably in the early 1900s. They put the fires out, it all made sense. But in the mid-1970s, ‘74 or ‘75, we used to have a thing called “Firemanship I” you took for your certification. Then the state came out with Fundamentals of Firefighting and Advance Firefighting. A very progressive leader, a Vince Lombardi type person, very stern, discipline, rough – tough guy. They brought a guy in to do the class from Harrisburg. He taught a Fundamentals class. I personally credit him for revolutionalizing the fire department at that point. We went from that 1930s through ‘60s way of doing business into becoming more of an aggressive, safer firehouse. The whole thing changed around. Taught a whole new mentality. He was involved with engine 8 in Harrisburg, which was the last volunteer fire engine in Harrisburg. The Union, Cumberland, and Friendship grabbed onto his concepts and moved with him. The other two didn’t, so they didn’t attract people. Maryland was a very wild fire operation back in the ‘70s. Fast fire engines whipping around lots of red lights and sirens, really progressive. The guys always came to the firehouse in uniforms, S.O.G.’s (Standing Operating Guidelines) they called them S.O.P.’s then (Standard Operation Procedures). A more professional looking group. The Harrisburg thing provided the tactics as far as approaching the fires; Maryland made our image and professionalism step it up a notch. The fire chief at the time in the borough started in 1951 at the Cumberland Fire Company. In1971 he became the borough fire chief. Very old fashioned in his ways, but he was progressive also. He was stern and an old discipline guy. He retired from Dickinson College, in the biology department. He followed through, and we wrote S.O.G.’s in the borough. When we went out the door, you had standard things which you did. You’d follow these procedures. Every building that had any kind of fire hazard, there was a pre-plan for. If we went to Carlisle Hospital, I knew to drive to the side on Walnut Street. That was our assignment. If we went to one of the warehouses, I knew where to drive. That was all pre-planned. When he retired in 1984, it was bad. The people they appointed just let it go. To this day, the borough cannot hand me a copy of a written S.O.G. for this day-in-age for the fire department. There isn’t a single pre-plan in our fire engine downstairs. Back in 1976-1980, we had pre-plans. Thirty years ago, we had pre-plans and S.O.G. Yes, they’re dated, but they match what was needed for that day. Today we have nothing, we have absolutely nothing.
Boland: Have you seen a change in the types of calls and the call volume?
Sheaffer: The call volume has obviously doubled. Back when I first started, we maybe ran 200 calls a year, and they were all car fires, or somebody pulled a street box, or you went to actual fires. Back then if you ran 200 calls, you probably saw 50 or 60 actual fires where you had to squirt water on something. Not big fires, but car fires, a couple of house fires, and barn fires. We run a thousand calls and we probably run 250 auto accidents, and when ever there’s someone injured, we go. We do provide a service. We get there, triage the scene, stabilize, remove hazards, help the injured, and go home. Back in the 1970s, you didn’t do that. If you went to a wreck, there were people pinned inside cars. We probably run 300 or 400 automatic alarms a year. They call it “smells and bells,” that’s all you go to. We probably have the same amount of house fires and car fires, but the wrecks and automatic alarms, plus going for medical calls, too. We used to go to one medical call. You might go for some 700-pound guy that they can’t get out of the house and help carry him out. Now we go if the ambulance company isn’t available. We’ll go for heart attack patients, or if someone is having trouble breathing, and get to the scene and stabilize.
Boland: Why do you think that they’ve changed?
Sheaffer: It’s the way it is. People have automatic alarms to lower their insurance rates and to make their building safer. The auto accidents, they recognize the need for the fire department to get there. There is always something you can help with: providing scene security, removing hazards.
The most dangerous thing about an auto is fire. A car when it catches fire burns fast, very rapidly. And if it’s a gas tank, it’s really rapid. When you pound into somebody, your battery is there, and you could short wiring out, your dash could catch fire, and if you’re trapped in that car, you’re a goner if the fire department isn’t around. In a matter of two or three minutes your car could be going, or you’ll be so smoked out, you’d be dead. The fire department goes for that reason. The biggest thing is to make sure that the car isn’t on fire, and if it’s going to be another three minutes, and you’re there gurgling and choking they can hold your airway or stabilize the vehicle if there’s gas running down the road. That’s why they go.
Boland: One last question. What do you hope for the fire department in the future?
Sheaffer: That’s a good question. I don’t think the volunteerism will ever come back. I think that the municipalities missed the boat years ago. They did not fund the fire departments right. A lot of people have been turned off by the fundraising needs and even though they are nearly providing enough now for us to be sustained without fundraising, they still need more. But that in turn causes stress on the members. Somebody doesn’t want to come in here thinking about how they’re going to make their next dollar to pay for the heat in this building when we’re providing a service to the people. When you can go to Maryland, or somewhere that has higher taxes but they’re paying for everything. You go to Maryland, and they pay for the fire trucks, the firehouses, and they put people up in the rooms, and you’re there just to fight fire. The attraction switch got turned off a couple of years ago, somehow. There’s just no one here to bait people in.
The expectations of the fire service now are so high as far as training. We need a chief here all the time, hanging around, because if you come in to join the fire company, you don’t want to come in and see air, or someone sitting here and watching TV. I don’t expect to see somebody 30-years-old down here watching TV all night because obviously they’ve done something wrong in life. There are not enough people to spread it around, to do it all everyday. What do I want to see? I don’t know.
It’s sad to see it go this way because I get pretty frustrated. It’s like, “You guys gotta get in here… You gotta attract people and get people into it.” If you can get five or six years out of someone maybe they’ll bring a friend who might stay here eight years and you just keep things going a little bit. I don’t know where to blame it other than the stress in the firehouse is too high. All the firehouses. The fundraising expectations. All our chiefs are around 40 years old and have kids. It’s just a bad deal. If you had come in here a year ago at this time there may have been 10 people here. It runs in spurts. The female bunkroom’s back here. We had three live-in females. We had probably three to four live-in males. Some of them were college students. Some lived there because there’s no rent. You knew they were not going to be here long. They’re gone now. Having just five or six people here attracted other people because there were people here to sit and talk to. Now there’s just no one around. I don’t know what the fix is. I hate to say it because I’m very into the volunteers. I’d hate to see it go away. But I think the borough had a couple of opportunities. We still have 3 competing firehouses in the borough. There’s a lot of animosity between the firehouses. It is horrible. They could have created a superstation. It would have been an attraction point for members for years and years and years.
Boland: Thank you.