MAPLEWOOD, NJ — When Michael Dingelstedt first started with the Maplewood Fire Department, technology was a little different: in the office a switchboard with wires and plugs still connected calls, and in a fire the firefighters knew they were in too much heat if their ears tingled and blistered. Now, 911 routes the calls and their ears are protected by flaps in their helmets. Thirty-eight years have gone by, and Chief Dingelstedt is ready to retire. His last day is tomorrow, Nov. 1.
Dingelstedt said even with population growth and construction of new buildings in Maplewood, “the character of the town hasn’t changed. It’s still a friendly town. I grew up in Maplewood,” on Tuscan Road, he said. “It’s gotten a lot more diverse from when I was growing up.” The benefit of that, he said, is meeting new people and learning about different cultures. All in all, he said, “It’s a great place to work.”
He’s proud of the changes in the department during his service: the number of calls has increased as well as the variety of services the department provides. “When I first started I think we responded to 651 alarms in 1981. Last year we did right around 4,000 alarms. That’s not all fires but it’s all requests for assistance.” Bringing EMS to the department was the biggest change he’s seen; the service began in 1996 to back up the Maplewood First Aid Squad. Eventually, after Sept. 11, 2001, the fire department became the primary EMS provider, due to dwindling first aid volunteers and the increase of “white powder calls…because of the threat of terrorism at the time.” In 2018, MFD had 1,837 EMS calls, Dingelstedt offered. Currently, all fire fighters must maintain their EMT certification. “It’s a benefit for the town.”
“Maplewood fire fighters, because it’s a small department, have to be proficient in every aspect of fire fighting," he noted. It is sometimes difficult, he said, because fires burn hotter and faster now than decades ago. This is due to modern building construction and synthetic materials in furniture, carpeting, and clothing. "I would take Maplewood fire fighters and put them up against anybody…for the knowledge they have, the professionalism they maintain when they go out, and the level of skills they have.” The words “pride” and “honor” are on their patch, and that is something he points out: he relates the respect the department has from surrounding towns when they go out on a mutual aid call. “That’s something I take great pride in.”
He has enjoyed his many roles over the years: as a lieutenant, doing fire inspections and investigations, a union representative, a safety officer, as captain, and as deputy chief. During his time as deputy chief he served as the executive officer, basically the second in command. He was promoted to chief in 2013. “That was one of my goals. I wanted to go through the ranks and hopefully be chief someday.” He was inspired to take on this career by his Uncle John, a fire fighter in Connecticut who took him to the fire house many times as a child.
Not many fire fighters can say this: for Dingelstedt his department has not only given him a career, but a love life as well. In 1985 he noticed a cute kindergarten teacher taking her class on a field trip to the station. When he introduced himself and asked her for her number, she told him to look it up in the phone book. He did. They got married a couple years later and have two daughters who are currently in college. They live in Shrewsbury.
Many of his men were on hand to witness his retirement ceremony at the beginning of the October 15 township committee meeting. “Serving in the community in which I grew up in is something I took great pleasure in and great pride in,” said Dingelstedt. In his remarks, the chief noted the changes in firefighting technology and expressed sorrow over the firefighters who had lost their lives over the years.
He said the township and department will be in capable hands with the new chief, current executive officer and deputy chief Michael Weber. “He’s going to do a good job.” He smiled and took a deep breath. “I’ve been blessed to work with the best of the best,” he said.