MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After 28 years with the Maplewood Fire Department, including 10 years as deputy chief, Michael Weber is set to take on his greatest professional challenge: He will be sworn in on November 6 as Fire Department Chief.
Sitting down with him in the station’s dining/meeting room, Weber was charming and chatty. He knows every piece of equipment in the department inside and out and of course every fire fighter under his charge.
“I’ve been here a long time, I’m extremely proud of this department,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to become the leader of this department.”
During the past ten years he has held both deputy chief positions: he has been the line deputy chief, running a platoon, and the executive officer, which Weber describes as “the chief’s right-hand man.”
Weber was inspired to become a fire fighter while at Rutgers; his roommate’s father was a New York City fire captain, and they had several discussions which encouraged him: he said that the skill sets Weber had would fit the career well. It turned out to be wise advice. After college he took the test to apply for three local departments, and Maplewood gave him a spot first.
He said that of course the most rewarding part of the job is helping people. After an electrical surge on Kendal Avenue brought out the department to check on a home not too long ago, they were lucky enough to be right there when another house caught fire; they were able to contain the fire quickly, and Weber said it because it was an electrical fire it was so hot it could have brought the house down had they not been across the street. Getting lunch the following week, “there was a gentleman there, and he said ‘you guys did a great job the other day!’” and it turned out his wife had made the original call. He said feels gratified to have interactions like that.
“I don’t have any huge ambitious goals,” as he starts his new position, he said, “because we are in such a flux right now,” he said, referring to the potential merger with the South Orange Fire Department. A timetable for the merger is not set in stone, he noted, and there are issues the towns have yet to solidify solutions for, such as South Orange being a civil service department while Maplewood is not, and MFD responding to EMS calls while South Orange does not. “So in the interim I want to make sure we focus on continuing to do our job, and support and give information” to the township committee, “whatever is required as far as what they need to know for a potential merger…and make sure we continue to operate efficiently and properly.”
Weber noted how proud he is of the men he works with. “We are exceptional when you consider the size we are and the services we provide,” he said. “The fact that we do EMS, it adds almost 2,000 alarms a year but it does a lot for developing firemen. You come on the job in Maplewood and you’re now assigned to an ambulance. Very shortly after you arrive here, you’re responding out on your own without an officer, you’re making decisions, radio communications, you’re writing reports. By the time these guys get into a position where they are even eligible to take a promotional test they’ve got such great experience. And other departments don’t have that.” And because of that, he said, “the citizens and the businesses in town get exceptional service.”
He’s seen a lot change during his 28 years on the job. “It’s a growing community. We’re building high density housing units all over,” he noted. “We are always striving to do things better and find innovative ways to provide more services but for what you have here and what you get I think the numbers are something,” he said, referring to the fact that less than three percent of a Maplewood homeowner’s property taxes goes toward the department’s budget. “I think that’s an exceptional bang for your buck.”
In conversation, he did not want to brag about himself. He did, however, want to boast about the stats of the department’s trainees. MFD sends its trainees to the Morris County Fire Academy, he said. There are four awards at graduation, he said, and “Our guys win the awards all the time.”
Recently, he said, in a class of 30, “we won two of the awards, and we only had four guys in there.” The most recent class graduated in October, he said, and although there were only two Maplewood trainees, they came in first, winning the academic award, and third in their class.
Weber notes the critical factor in finding good fire fighter candidates is recruiting. He has recruited at local hospitals and universities, where he casts a wide net. “Minority hiring is an important issue” and he said that it’s a matter of getting the word out to potential applicants. “I never anticipated that I would have to be a salesman, but there are times when you have to be a salesman! You have to justify why it’s a great job and a great opportunity.” He said he’s even had to learn to be a salesman with the town: he lobbied to get a stainless steel fire engine purchased although it was a higher price after explaining how much longer it would last and pointing out the rust problems the last one had. Now, after eight years the vehicle is still looking brand new, he said, which will save taxpayers in the long run.
Greg Lembrich, township committee member and chair of the public safety committee, gives Weber high marks: “We are thrilled that Mike Weber is stepping up in his new position of fire chief. As executive officer for the past several years he has done an outstanding job in moving the department forward and improving the process of working with the governing body and working with a number of the surrounding departments that we have mutual aid with. He’s respected by every firefighter that has worked with him and I think everyone is really looking forward to what the department can do under his leadership.”
Weber will be sworn in at the November 6 township committee meeting, where several other promotions in the department will also become official.