MAPLEWOOD, NJ — It’s been a little over two months since Michael Weber took over as chief of the Maplewood Fire Department, after former Chief Michael Dingelstedt retired at the end of October. Weber has been a firefighter for 29 years, but he’s still getting used to the new rank.
“It’s not as hands on,” Weber said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 16. “On the routine days, the platoon leaders are in charge. You’re not doing drills anymore, and it’s more administrative, which is a big change. I enjoyed being a line firefighter, so now it’s just different. You have to learn how to delegate more.”
Now a resident of Roseland, Weber grew up in South Orange. When he was in college at Rutgers University, his roommate’s father was a firefighter in New York City and introduced him to the profession. Weber was encouraged to take the test to become a firefighter while working with his roommate’s father on a construction job after college, and the Maplewood Fire Department beat the South Orange and Montclair fire departments to the punch when they called to hire him.
There is typically a six- to eight-week transition period of meetings, training and observation when a new chief takes over, but Dingelstedt and Weber had only two weeks this past fall to make it happen, which Weber joked made things interesting. Being a longtime member of the department helped.
“When you’re here for 29 years, you learn what the positives and the negatives are,” he said. “I was involved in hiring a good portion of the guys here, so I know them really well.”
Dingelstedt was with the MFD for 38 years and was chief for seven, so Weber had had plenty of time to see what the job entails and how his predecessor did it.
“You observe a lot over the years,” he said. “He was a union guy, and I took away a lot of the administrative lessons. For us, it’s worked out well.”
The impending merger of the Maplewood and South Orange fire departments has taken up much of Weber’s time as chief. Originally slated for a Jan. 1 launch, that was pushed back, Weber said, so the two towns could continue talking about the best way to combine the departments into one. The new target date is April 1. Weber said he doesn’t know what his role will be in the merged department; it is one item to be worked out on a list of many. For now, though, he’s continuing to make improvements to the MFD.
“I’ve always wanted to standardize training,” Weber said. “We’ve always relied on surrounding departments, but we could communicate more. If that changes, we’ll work together better.”
Maplewood has a mutual aid agreement with South Orange, Irvington, Millburn and Union that sees the departments respond to calls in all the towns when necessary, covering for one another when a platoon is out on a call. Weber wants each department to be familiar with how the others work.
“What I would like to do is standardize, so we’re familiar with how they operate,” he said. “A fire scene is hectic. I don’t want to change how they operate, but I want to know how their guys operate, and I want them to know how we operate.”