MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Michael Dingelstedt felt strange when he woke up Nov. 1. He didn’t have anything to do.
The former Maplewood Fire Department chief’s last day of work was Oct. 31, when he retired and wrapped up 38 years of working as a firefighter in the department.
“It’s going to take some adjustment,” Dingelstedt said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 1, his first day of retirement. “I was doing this for 38 years. I’m still thinking about things I would normally be doing, and then realizing I don’t have to.”
Chief for the last seven years and a firefighter since 1981, Dingelstedt grew up in Maplewood. When he was younger, he lived on Tuscan Road, and would watch the fire trucks race down the street on their way to a fire or between Fire Headquarters and Firehouse 2 with his friends and brother.
“It was the main route,” Dingelstedt said. “So they always went by my house on their way to Boyden Avenue. We would watch them go by.”
He also spent time in firehouses as a child, when visiting his uncle in Connecticut.
“I had a couple of uncles who were firefighters in Hartford,” he said. “We would stay there when we went on vacation and my Uncle John would take us to the firehouse and show us around. So that inspired me.”
Dingelstedt climbed the ranks of the department, seeing changes in technology and firefighting gear along the way. He also became aware of the challenges of a smaller department in his 38 years on the job, saying that in bigger cities firefighters often have a specialty.
“In a small department, you have to be proficient in more than one thing,” Dingelstedt said. “People on an engine work with the hoses, people on the ladder trucks work on ventilation or search and rescue. In a bigger department, one person can be assigned to one thing for the majority of their career. Here, you have to be proficient on more because on any given day you could be in a different company.”
The uniforms have changed a lot since Dingelstedt started wearing them, going from lighter coats and boots to thermal bunker gear that can withstand more heat. The firefighters have more advanced masks with voice boxes to communicate with one another on the scene, and cameras that help them see through smoke. But even though the technology has greatly helped firefighting, it has created its own set of challenges.
“We have to be more aware because even though they can withstand all the heat, you’re not feeling it as much,” Dingelstedt said. “So you have to be more aware and pay attention to make sure you don’t get burned.”
In the last year, the MFD responded to approximately 4,200 calls. Not all were to put out fires; approximately 1,500 to 1,800 were EMS calls; some were for fire alarms; and some were accidents. And the number of calls Dingelstedt and his colleagues responded to grew over the years. In 1981, they went on about 650 calls. Unfortunately, not all of them ended well, Dingelstedt said.
“I’ve been in situations where people have died,” he said. “I’ve responded to accidents where people didn’t make it. There was a baby that was really sick and we worked at the hospital with the doctors for almost a half an hour, and she didn’t live. My partner and I just sat there after that.”
But when calls didn’t go the way Dingelstedt wanted them to, he found a way to move on and help someone else. He told a story about the time there was a fire at Clinton Elementary School and his company was called to the scene, and when the building was cleared for students and staff to go back in, a student tapped him on the shoulder and thanked him.
“I had my coat and my mask off, and I was walking back to the truck,” Dingelstedt said. “This little boy looked at me and said, ‘Hey, thank you!’ That’s really gratifying, especially from a little kid.”
As a union representative for more than 30 years and a union president for eight of the last 38 years, Dingelstedt said one of his favorite parts of the job was meeting people. He worked with Maplewood businesses as a fire inspector and with other municipal fire departments, especially South Orange, Millburn and Irvington, as part of the county mutual aid agreement. He also got to know the people he helped.
“I was able to learn a lot about a lot of different cultures,” Dingelstedt said. “Just going to people’s houses and being able to chat with them. I don’t know how I would have done that if I worked in a regular office.”
There’s one very important person Dingelstedt met at the firehouse — his wife.
“She grew up in Maplewood too, and she was a kindergarten teacher,” he said. “She brought her class to the firehouse for a tour. I introduced myself and asked if I could call her, and she said ‘Sure, look me up in the phone book.’ That was in 1985, so I guess it worked out.”
The couple has twin daughters, who are now both sophomores in college.
Dingelstedt is not sure what he’s going to do with his newfound free time yet.
“My wife has a list of stuff for me to do,” he joked. “I’m going to take some time and see what happens. Eventually I may do fire inspections and fire-safety consulting, but there’s no firm plans yet. I’m still in work mode.”
He said that while the public often calls firefighters and other first responders heroes, none choose the profession for that reason.
“I enjoyed going to work every day, I enjoyed it all the way up until yesterday,” Dingelstedt said. “No one goes into this looking to be a hero. To me, I’m just a guy that went to work every day and tried to support my family. If I could make someone’s life better every day, then that’s a bonus.”