Recently, long-time Life Member Larry Slagle was selected as the “Inside the Fire Station – Member Spotlight” profile. Our page often receives positive feedback about the well-written material and thorough explanation of incidents, training, drills, etc., featured. These releases and articles are usually written in the 3rd person. With that in mind, this article proves to be autobiographical in nature. For ease of composure, I switch to the 1st person narrative. Now, you know who authors these.
When first informed I had been selected, I was and have been anxious, and in a conundrum. How to present my own story without appearing to engage in shameless self-promotion. I have friends and associates in the fire company that will, undoubtedly, tease me about it. So be it! I have broad shoulders! Here goes….
My academic performance through most of my school years was lackluster and uninspiring, if not downright shameful. With little formal training beyond high school English, when it comes to journalism, I have acquitted myself remarkably well. The poor showing back then was mainly due to laziness. Halfway through my high school years, I experienced a “Eureka!” period. If I was going to graduate, I needed to up my game. A change in performance ensued. Where previously I was barely passing, I began earning respectable grades. I had decided to apply myself and do the work. It just goes to show, because your GPA is poor doesn’t mean you aren’t learning. I have always enjoyed writing, and my offering on this venue shows that. It’s a pleasure to write well, something many find a challenge.
With the spotlight profiles for other members, I have necessarily been limited in what to say. They are provided a brief questionnaire where they share information about their fire service career and life story. In some cases, where I have the knowledge, I can share insight over and above what they’ve provided. Obviously, in my case, I can be a little more detailed.
I’m a second-generation member of the Chestertown VFC and will soon celebrate 46 years of service. My father, Lawrence Slagle, Sr., joined the fire company shortly after the tragedy of Kent Manufacturing, a.k.a. “The Powder Plant (or Defense Plant) Explosion”. That was July 16, 1954. I was born seven years later and grew up with the fire company. Pop’s participation and service was always a fact of life growing up. It was a measure of pride for we children… my sisters (Gay & Julie) and I. I remember countless family dinners interrupted because the “fire whistle” blew. This was long before pagers and other technology to alert members. I even go back to pre-tone alert days when an automated series of single tones were broadcast over the fire radio.
When the whistle would blow, or later when the tone alert went off, Pop would quickly wolf down a few bites, jump up, grab his hat, and run out the door. I remember sitting in church. The whistle would blow. Dutifully, he would stay. Occasionally, in short order, the whistle would blow again. Pop would quietly get up and excuse himself from the sanctuary. In those days, when the siren blew a second time that soon, it usually meant it was serious. Someone needed help. Help the fire company is uniquely qualified to provide. Mom never worried about how we would get home. There were family and friends in church that would see to that.
Like any son, I wanted to be like Dad. And so, I followed through with that goal. When I was 14, I joined the fire company Explorer Post. The Exploring program was offered through the Boy Scouts of America, intended to provide potential career training. At the time, I was in 8th grade at the Chestertown Middle School, now the Kent County Middle School, on Campus Avenue. Most of our present, long-time members matriculated into the fire company through the Explorer Post. At the time, the adults working with the Post were demanding, expecting the very best we could provide. They often boasted they would not hesitate to put us against the best the fire company could offer. Most of that period I remember with happiness and pride. There are, as expected, some memories not so happy.
Later, after aging out of the Explorers, I helped for a brief period as an Associate Advisor. I then went on to helm the post as the Advisor. When you total the various periods I served off & on as Advisor, I remained in that position for about 20 years. Many of our current long-time, Life Members entered the company through the Explorer Post when I was the Post Advisor. Between the period I was Associate Advisor and Post Advisor, I’m also proud that quite a few went on to respectable careers in the Fire & EMS field. One former Explorer, now a Station Captain in a career fire department, told me the level of training he received here as an Explorer was far superior to that he received both in the Air Force and when he entered the department he works for.
At the age of 17, if you were ready, you could be appointed to “Red Helmet” probationary status. (This was before the fire company adopted the traditional helmet coloring status, which indicated red was a Captain. After that change, Explorer probationary firefighters wore the traditional yellow helmet, which denotes probationary.) As a probationary red helmet, you could ride on real emergency calls but were limited in what you could do. You were basically a “gopher” … go for this or go for that. When I turned 17, I was appointed a “Red Helmet”. One of the things that happened at the time, long since forgotten? The Chief at the time, provided me a key to the fire station “Engine Room”. This created an uproar with members that had previously entered through the Post. No “Red Helmet” Explorer had ever been provided a key. Essentially, this changed the practice. After that, “Red Helmet” probationary Explorers got a key. (To all that came after me? You’re welcome! )
When I was 18, in keeping with the practice of the time, I automatically entered the fire company as a Regular Member, with all the rights and privileges due a full member. I was still in high school. After graduation, I went to work for Washington College as an unskilled laborer in the Maintenance Department. To this day, I still say this was the “BEST” job I ever had. Working there was a lot of fun. It also helped that Mr. Bill Coleman also worked there. Mr. Bill was a good friend of Pop and the Deputy Chief of the fire company. He came to be a mentor to me here in the fire company. I was honored to be asked to serve as a pallbearer when he passed. I was speechless, even humbled, when I learned he had made these decisions / arrangements before he passed. I was again astounded to when I was appointed Parliamentarian for the company. Mr. Bill had faithfully anchored this position for almost as long as I could remember. I stated then, and maintain to this day.... I can fill the position. I will never be able to fill his shoes.
When I went to work at the college, permission to leave for emergency calls was never explicitly talked about. It just worked out that way. In keeping with the advice which Mr. Bill provided, I never abused the privilege. He said if there were important things to be done, don’t go. I respected that advice and followed his example. There were several times I couldn’t go and didn’t. Those occasions were few and far between. After most “working fire” calls where clean-up, repacking hose was required, Mr. Bill would instruct me to stay at the station and help complete it. Then? Come back to work ASAP. Again… I never abused that privilege. I went back as soon as we finished. I knew the privilege could just as easily be taken away. As a result of this response privilege, for the five-year tenure I worked at the college, I was consistently in the annual list of “Top 10” responders. My ranking was usually in the top 3… and #1 for a couple of those years. I was usually neck & neck against Mr. Bill.
In December 1985, I left the employ of the college to become a 9-1-1 / Public Safety Dispatcher for Kent County, Maryland, working in the basement of the Courthouse. Rotating shift work facilitated my ability to attend daytime, weekday emergency calls, although I missed just as many calls when working. I particularly remember a period in the late 80’s. It was the year of working fires. From automobile fires to structure fires, and everything in-between… we had more then twenty that year. I attended maybe 3 – 4. Where was I for the rest? Either out-of-the-area, or in the basement of the Courthouse, dispatching them.
In 1988, along with Gus Leager and Seth Powell, the three of us were awarded (co “Firefighter of the Year”. We were like the 3 Musketeers. Where one was found, the other two were usually, but not always, nearby. I’ve maintained close contact with Seth, one of my best friends and my wingman. Seth’s participation with the fire company waned when he started a family. His interest in the fire company did not wane. He is currently serving as one of our Board of Directors, and assures me he will come back. (Come on, buddy! The clock and calendar is ticking.)
Mid-year 1990, I left Kent to become a 9-1-1 / Public Safety Dispatcher for Harford County, Maryland, a Baltimore City suburban county. I moved to Aberdeen to be closer to work. Living just an hour away, I was able to maintain some semblance of participation with the Chestertown VFC. In 1995, with 20 years of service, I had the honor and privilege of being elected a Life Member of the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company. My father had achieved this milestone in 1974, some 21 years previous. Sadly, he passed away that previous May. He did not get to see me receive the honor.
Late in 1998, I left the employ of Harford County and returned home, where I went to work for Tri Gas & Oil in Galena. During the summer of 2000, Kent County asked me to come back in their employ as a 9-1-1 / Public Safety Dispatcher, to which I acceded. I was with Kent just over a year, when Harford County Emergency Operations invited me to reapply for one of several openings they were filling. I went through their hiring process. The morning of 9/11, I had my pre-employment physical as a precursor to again work for Harford County. That morning, I exited the medical center in Riverside, Harford County to a completely changed world.
I worked for Harford County until January 2003. I found that my typing abilities were not up to the challenge of the modern dispatch environment. I decided to throw in the towel and returned to my job with Tri Gas & Oil. I moved back to Chestertown.
As I had maintained part-time status with Tri Gas & Oil, returning to full-time was easy. My experience working with propane has, until recently, proved beneficial to the fire company. I worked with Tri Gas & Oil until 2015, then switched over to Paradee Gas / Amerigas (district office near Dover, DE). I left Amerigas in late 2018. I tried my hand again with Kent County Office of Emergency Services as a dispatcher. My old challenge of slow typing ability, along with the inability to quickly learn the Computer Aided Dispatch system, proved an insurmountable obstacle. I did not complete the probationary period and was kicked to the curb. Because of my age, I decided to forgo trying to again work in the propane industry. I eventually secured a position as a Produce Clerk with Redners Grocery here in Chestertown, where some of you may have unknowingly seen me. (If you recognize me now? Please say hello!)
My participation with the fire company over the past 20 years has been active and interesting. After returning to Chestertown in 2003, I was appointed a Captain, then eventually became an Assistant Chief. These days, operationally, I mostly drive. I only crew the engine when “absolutely” necessary. Being a firefighter is a demanding job, even for young people. For me that ship has sailed. Begrudgingly, I’ll do it, but it’s no longer easy.
On the administrative side, I’ve served as one of the two company vice presidents a few times. Then, in 2009, I was elected to be President of the fire company. That was an experience many, including myself, don’t wish to repeat. Why anyone would aspire to that high position is beyond me! It’s a thankless job, especially if you don’t always get cooperation and support.
One of the recognition programs Chestertown VFC has is our “Alarm Clubs”. We track our member’s annual response totals and place their names on a plaque in the fire station, starting with 1000 alarms. At each “thousand” milestone, their name appears on that plaque. Along with Chris Carter and Robert Knoedler, I currently appear on the “4000 Alarm Club” plaque. If I still have it within me, I someday hope to make the 5000 club. I understand I’m just a couple hundred alarms away.
When not responding to calls, most of my contributions these days takes the form of being one of our media representatives, writing releases, biographies, eulogies, and advertisements for company activities, etc. My long, diverse history and experience allows me the opportunity to break down and interpret our operations for the layperson.
From a personal standpoint? I live here, in-town - Chestertown. I’m a history hound. I especially enjoy military history and focus mainly on the American Civil War, and primarily the Battle of Gettysburg. I often lead informal tours of that battlefield for family and friends. My knowledge of that battle, the historic town, and the modern town are a thing with me which most people are unaware. Interspersed with shorter day trips and brief over night forays, I usually vacation there for a week to ten days every year. As an aside, I try not to bore people with Gettysburg stuff. Most aren't as excited about as I am. Additionally, the history of the fire company offers special interest. I soak up anything I can learn about our history. It’s fascinating stuff!
Another hobby is amateur meteorology, to the chagrin of some, and the delight of others. I follow the weather, especially severe events like hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, bad thunderstorms, and big snows. If severe weather is in progress or in the offing? You can bet I’m aware of it and have the details. If there are strong to severe thunderstorms coming? You might find me with camera, as opportunity presents, out storm chasing here in this area. In my time, I’ve only personally seen one tornado here in the county. That one struck near Locust Grove about 30 years ago. When you see severe weather advisories posted on our page? You can safely assume I'm the one that pushed those buttons.
Well? There you have my story. Hopefully, I haven’t crossed over into the arena shameless self-promotion.