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Town Fire Chief Walter Ridge
By SUZANNE MARKERT
Walter Ridge has been unwinding lately. Looking tan, fit and relaxed in a white polo shirt, the former Westfield Fire Department Chief, who turns 66 this August, said that he has been playing golf and plans to volunteer and spend more time with his family and three grandchildren.
Mr. Ridge retired from the Westfield Fire Department on July 1, in compliance with a newly-enforced state law requiring mandatory retirement at age 65, after spending 38 years and nine months in the department, with the past 16 years as Fire Chief.
"It was a great career," Mr. Ridge said of his years in the department, which he joined on October 15, 1958. Mr. Ridge joined the department as a fireman after serving in the United States Navy during the Korean Conflict and working as a service station operator at his brother-in-laws business, Romeos Gulf Service.
"I thought maybe I needed a career," he said of becoming a firefighter, "and being a service station operator wasnt a career."
He also had two young daughters to support at the time. Maureen Gabriel, now 41, still lives in town and has three children: Jeffrey, 14; Laura, 10, and Erin, 8. Kathleen Dannevig, now 39, is married to Westfield Fire Lieutenant Ken Dannevig.
Civic service runs in the Ridge family. Along with Mr. Dannevig, Mr. Ridges brother-in-law, Bernie Mormelo, was a Lieutenant for the Westfield Police Department.
Also, Mr. Ridges mother was a school crossing guard near Franklin Elementary School for 25 years.
"Lawrence (Avenue) and Sinclair (Place) that was her corner," he remembered.
A Westfield native, she grew up on Cacciola Place, which was then called North Street. Mr. Ridge was born in Westfield and grew up in the same house his mother did until about 1934, when his family moved to Newark during the Great Depression. They stayed in Newark, where his father, a plumber, was from, until 1946. Then they moved back to Westfield, where he has lived ever since.
Mr. Ridges wife, Frances, is also a Westfield native. She grew up on Grove Street, which is the same street that the Ridges, who were married in 1955, live on now.
The fire department, he said, has changed since he first started as a newlywed.
"Starting in the late 50s, the early 60s, the fire department took on a big change," he explained. The National Firemens Benevolent Association created mandatory standards for upgrading apparatus, equipment, uniforms and working conditions. Mandatory training took effect, and over the years, Mr. Ridge completed courses in such topics as heavy-duty rescue training, fire administration and scientific arson investigation. He also served as a past Treasurer, Vice President and President of the Career Firefighters Association; Vice President of the Union County Fire Chiefs Association, and on the Union County Fire Advisory Board.
Within a year of becoming a firefighter in 1958, Mr. Ridge was made a drive and pump operator. He soon was made department mechanic, and he instituted a preventive maintenance program which remained in effect for decades. In 1963, he was promoted to Lieutenant and then to Captain. He was assigned to the southside fire house, where he was responsible for training the men under his command. In 1973 he was promoted to Deputy Fire Chief where he served as "C" Platoon Commander and continued as the officer in charge of equipment maintenance. In 1981 he was named Chief.
His promotion to Chief was one of the highlights of his career, he said.
"Every promotion you get are all steps forward. You move not into a different circle of friends but the duties and responsibilities go up," he said.
One major change he faced when he became Chief was that he no longer went out to fight fires.
"You miss it," he said. "Thats a big thing you have to get used to."
Instead, he made sure that everything was in its place at the department, including training, scheduling and the budget. He commended the town for making sure that the fire department had everything it needed over the years.
"The town was always fair with the fire department in regards to getting equipment, getting the apparatus," he said.
A major accomplishment of the department, he said, was the remodeling of the fire house on North Avenue in 1985. Though some wanted to build a new house instead of remodeling the old one, "cooler heads prevailed," he said, adding, "It really is a nice building."
Now that Mr. Ridge has retired from the department, he will have time to do things such as watch his grandson play football and baseball. Mr. Ridge also plans to talk to Town Administrator Edward A. Gottko about volunteering.
Mr. Ridge is a member of the American Legion Post No. 3 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is also a charter member of the Westfield chapter of UNICO, which named him Man of the Year in 1990.
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