With a fire raging on a nearby rooftop, Aberdeen Fire Chief Dave Carlberg turned to his firefighters and started to strategize on how to best control the blaze.
Everybody had already gotten out safely from the late-night house fire on Sept. 12 on Broadway in Aberdeen, which spread from a nearby carport to the roof and soon into the house itself. But firefighters responded quickly and had it under control within the next couple of hours.
As chief, the last word on how the fire should be handled was with him. But just like everything else in his career, he trusted it to his firefighters to know what to do.
“We train for fires over and over until it becomes a methodical process and once everyone arrives on scene, they know their places and what they’re supposed to do,” Carlberg said.
With a little luck, that fire is likely the last incident command Carlberg will deal with — “knock on wood,” he says. On Wednesday, he will say goodbye to his crew and the city. After nearly 35 years — the last 13 years as chief — he’s retiring.
A retirement party has been slated for 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday at the fire station on 700 W. Market St. in Aberdeen. Everyone is invited.
“We’re expecting someone to roast him rather well,” said firefighter Jeremy Laier. “He’s been a great boss and I know we’ll all miss him around here.”
Later that night, Chief Carlberg will receive a fond farewell at the Aberdeen City Council meeting, which starts at about 7 p.m. At that time, the council is also expected to appoint Battalion Chief Tom Hubbard as the new chief. That’s Carlberg’s recommendation and the mayor’s recommendation, as well.
IN HIS BLOOD
Firefighting has been in Carlberg’s blood since he was a young boy. His father, Al Carlberg, worked as a firefighter for about 25 years from 1953 to until 1979.
Carlberg was hired by Aberdeen in January of 1978, so he was able to work with his father for a short time.
“It was a little weird because I used to come down here visiting him when I was a kid and I knew a lot of his co-workers so when I actually came to work here it was a little awkward,” Carlberg said. “But it was fun. We got to work a couple fires together. Today, he’s in a nursing home and he’s always asking me what’s going on here, always wanting to know the details.”
Carlberg attended a fire academy at Bates Technical School, which gave him the training he needed to eventually get the job in Aberdeen.
“Truth is, my fire career really started in July of 1976 when I went to Bates and had a residency with the City of Sumner, which provided me room and board,” Carlberg said. “I stayed at the downtown Sumner station and one of the first fires I went to was a multiple alarm fire and was at Meeker Elementary School in Puyallup. I remember getting into truck and thinking ‘My God, what did I get myself into?’ ”
Carlberg said remembering those feelings helps him cater to the newer firefighters, who might never have handled a fire before.
The newest hire is Monica Myers, who happens to be the first woman firefighter in the history of the City of Aberdeen.
“I’m having fun and am so fortunate he hired me,” said Myers, as she was working on Wednesday.
Carlberg was appointed chief on May 1, 1999 by then-Mayor Chuck Gurrad. He’s served under four mayors — Gurrad, Mike Wilson, Dorothy Vogue and Bill Simpson.
Carlberg notes the two most critical fires under his watch were the fires that consumed Aberdeen High School ten years ago this year; as well the Grays Harbor Equipment fire five years ago.
“The fire at Aberdeen High School was probably the most divisive this community has seen,” Carlberg said. “I think we’d have to go back to the Black Friday fire of 1903 to find another fire that polarized the community as much as that one did.”
The Grays Harbor Equipment fire was clearly the largest fire the community had seen in a very long time, Carlberg noted. The fire resurrected fears from Carlberg and other firefighters on how quickly a fire can spread downtown, especially to fires from neglectful building owners occupied by transients building camp fires inside of them.
The Grays Harbor Equipment fire remains unsolved even today, he said.
“There were just so many ways that fire could have started that we were never able to figure it out,” Carlberg said. “It was clearly the largest investigation effort we had on one incident. We didn’t close that incident out until almost three weeks after it started. We had to maintain the scene to control and stabilize the building just to get in there. And once we were inside, we had to put a firefighter up in the rafters with a hand-held air horn to monitor the structure. If he saw anything irregular, his job was to sound the alarm and investigators were to get out of there.”
The big fires might be cases for a text book some day, but it’s a few smaller fires that stick with Carlberg’s memory even today.
“The most memorable to me in my mind were fires at 900 W Market, 1100 W. Wishkah, the 200 block of South Washington, the 700 block of Randall Street,” Carlberg said, recalling addresses with perfect clarity. “Those are the fires I remember in my mind because those are the ones where we weren’t able to be successful getting people out and we had fatalities. And those will always stay in my mind.”
Carlberg said he found a log book from 1907 that shows that the Aberdeen Fire Department responded to fires quite frequently — there were wood shavings everywhere and the sidewalks were built from wood. Today, the Fire Department is more about medical responses. The fire department’s annual report shows that the fire department responded to 5,232 calls for services. Of those, 392 were fire responses, and even some of those were just because of hazardous materials and there were just nine incidents that required a second alarm or greater escalation. The rest were medical calls.
The Fire Department took on medical duties in 1973 when the agency inherited the task from Whiteside Mortuary, which struck up a deal for the city to take over.
“We became one of the first cities in the state to do a Fire/EMS system,” Carlberg said.
At around the same time the TV show “Emergency!” hit the air, lasting six seasons until 1977.
“That show really brought the Fire-based EMS system into people’s forefront,” Carlberg said, noting three years ago he had a chance to meet one of the show’s stars at a fire conference in Olympia.
“Probably one of the most tragic calls I ever had was an aid call one Sunday at McDonalds,” Carlberg said.
The incident happened in the early 1980s and the call involved a young girl, still in her church clothes, choking on a French fry.
“Back then, there was no advanced life support,” Carlberg said. “There was just basic life support. And we did everything we could and transported her to the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital and she just didn’t make it. She died from choking on a French fry. It even bothers me to this day we were not able to do anything for that poor kid and it was just because we didn’t have the skills at that time to do it.” A few years later, Carlberg said he was out on a call with Aberdeen paramedic John Stead, who would go on to become a battalion chief and pass away with fire-related cancer.
“We had a call of a young teenager choking on a hot dog at Swansons,” Carlberg said. “The airway was totally blocked. The poor kid was just blue and unconscious at the time. We tried the Heimlich and when that didn’t work, Stead opened his mouth and went in with a scope and forceps and pulled out this piece of hot dog and the kid started breathing again. And we saved him. You had two incidents of the exact same thing and one we didn’t have the skills and the other we did and it made a difference. I remember those two incidents distinctly. It’s a good example of what our system is now and what advanced life support has done with our citizens here and how they have made a difference.”
Last year, the department’s average EMS response time within the city was 4 minutes, 17 seconds. In 2011, they actually documented a total of 88 medical saves of patients who most likely would not have survived without qualified medical intervention of firefighter/paramedics.
Carlberg says when he was hired there were at least 50 people with the department. Today, he is in charge of 37 employees with 33 of them firefighters — three shifts of 11. A few years back, the firefighters union actually negotiated with the city a minimum service level of 11 firefighters per shift.
“He never micromanages,” said Battalion Chief Damon Lillybridge. “If he hears something and it comes to him he’ll deal with it but he trusts his managers below him to handle what they need to do. If there’s bad news, we try to break it to him before he finds out. The one thing the chief never likes is surprises.”
“I’ve always felt my job is to get these guys what they need working within the limits of our budget and let them do it,” Carlberg said. “My job is just to make sure they have the tools, equipment and facilities they need in order to keep their jobs safe. We have a saying here that at the end of the shift everybody goes home and that’s a testament to Damon and all of the other officers to make that happen.”