Carlisle History

A living history of Carlisle, PA

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The History of the Carlisle Fire Department

Courtesy of the Union Fire Company - Carlisle, PA, Cumberland Goodwill Company - Carlisle, PA, Empire Friendship Company - Carlisle, PA, and Ebay

Carlisle’s Historical Fires Interview with Dave Weaver

Interview with John Sheaffer    The Union Fire Company

The Cumberland County Historical Society 

The Carlisle Fire Department has been around for centuries and has been fed by generations of volunteers. The members of the department have been witness to many historical events, including historical fires such as the Kronenberg fire of 1929 or the Bowman’s fire of 1962. Up until recently, the department had a solid number of volunteers to respond to these and other calls; however, that has changed in the last few decades. In the 1970s various factors influenced the Carlisle Fire Department. Advancements were made in safety apparatus and policy was created in Harrisburg to increase and better training. Additionally, influences from Maryland departments instilled an interest in professionalism, such as wearing uniforms [1]. In addition to the growth of Carlisle and a change in ideology, these factors have led the number of volunteers to decline. Along with the struggle to raise enough money to run the firehouses, this has created a strain that may cause volunteerism in Carlisle to disappear.

Find out what Dave Weaver considers to be the best and worst parts about volunteering.

Hear John Sheaffer’s point of view on volunteering.

The Carlisle Fire Department was established in 1789 with the creation of the Union Fire Company. Originally housed in a wagon shed behind the courthouse, the company moved to a building on West Louther Street before settling into another building across the street in 1889. [2] The company is still situated in that building and has set up a museum in the original section. This museum was created to preserve relics from the station’s long past. During interviews, Fire Chief Dave Weaver and Firefighter John Sheaffer credit their forefathers with saving historical memorabilia, which is something that most fire companies have been unable to do. [3]

Click below to hear John Sheaffer relate the history of the five Carlisle fire companies.

The Carlisle Fire Department originally consisted of five companies: Union, Cumberland, Goodwill, Friendship, and Empire. [4] Historically, the competition between these companies has been intense as each one fought to reach the fire first. [5] However, companies were forced to merge for financial and political reasons and there are currently only three companies: Union, Cumberland-Goodwill, and Empire-Friendship. [6]

Courtesy of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PACourtesy of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PACourtesy of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PA

The Carlisle Fire Department contracts itself out to surrounding townships. Traditionally, only the company-owned apparatus was allowed to respond to outside calls while the borough-owned truck stayed within Carlisle. [7] However, this has changed, and both trucks can be used to respond to other townships.
Firefighters have seen a change in the amount and types of calls to which they respond. Structure fires such as the Bowman’s fire, Strand Theatre fire, and Pomfret Street fire are rare, which Chief Weaver suggests is due to current fire prevention. [8] Carlisle has had some interesting historical fires. Now, firefighters find themselves responding to auto accidents and what they call “smells and bells,” or automatic alarms. [9]

John Sheaffer talks about the decrease in the number of volunteers.

The standards and training have also changed. In the 1970s, when John Sheaffer joined the department, breathing apparatus was introduced and new training standards were implemented by Harrisburg. In addition to the policy changes set by the capital, Sheaffer recalls a strong professionalizing influence on the department by Maryland firefighters. [10] However, both men speculate that a combination of the increased training and a decreased desire to volunteer has led to a decrease in volunteers. Additionally, it is possible that a decreased involvement with and investment in the community has also been a factor. [11]

Courtesy of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PACourtesy of the Union Fire Company, Carlisle, PA

Eventually, volunteerism may end in Carlisle and be replaced by paid firefighters. [12] At one point, three generations of the Sheaffer family worked in the same firehouse, and it was not uncommon for volunteerism to flow from generation to generation. [13] Back when he was growing up, John Sheaffer remembers hanging out at the firehouse and following the fire engines to a fire by looking for the water they spilled because that was the thing to do in Carlisle. Everyone belonged to the company.

Click below to hear his account.

The potential end of volunteerism is upsetting to those who join the department looking to give back to the community and find camaraderie in the firehouse. It is difficult to balance a job, family and volunteering. Chief Weaver, who works at a Harrisburg area hospital, stresses that he has to prioritize in order to fit everything. [14] John Sheaffer states that there are “peaks and valleys” and that it is easy to become burned out and in need of a break. [15] Additionally, volunteers are required to help with the fundraisers that the company depends upon, whether it be barbeques or working at the car shows. [16] Neither man thinks that volunteerism in Carlisle will be able to recover, and they don’t think it will last much longer.

Carlisle’s Historical Fires Interview with Dave Weaver

Interview with John Sheaffer    The Union Fire Company

The Cumberland County Historical Society

[1] John Sheaffer. Interview with the author. Nov. 11, 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Dave Weaver. Interview with the author. Oct. 29, 2007.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Sheaffer.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Weaver.
[13] Sheaffer.
[14] Weaver.
[15] Sheaffer.
[16] Weaver.