The first time you hear that identical twin brothers have given 50 years to their fire company, you realize how unlikely it was that you’ve ever heard that kind of a sentence before.
It’s happened exactly once this century, in fact. In Trinity, Texas, in 2013.
But five years later, across more than 27,000 fire departments and a million-plus firefighters in the United States, it’s happening again. This time in Plainsboro, where Roy and Ted Wagner will, on June 4, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day they both joined the Plainsboro Fire Company.
At age 68, both Wagners are still among the most likely to respond to calls. They both have sons who are firefighters. They both have understanding wives. They both laugh knowingly when you ask them how things have changed in Plainsboro since the days men still hadn’t made it to the moon.
Because that’s what it takes, isn’t it? That one consistent thing that comes along to remind you that while it’s never wavered, the entire world around it is a vastly different place than it used to be. Back in 1968, Plainsboro was quiet farm country. Ted Wagner Sr., the Wagners’ father and a founding member of the fire company – who, as a plumber, set up the original firehouse’s plumbing system—had brought his two boys into a department that responded to 35, maybe 40 calls a year.
Most calls, according to Ted, were actually fires then. Ground fires. Burning barns. Most of the structures, Roy said, were simple materials like wood and metal and stone. The composites and polymers and chemicals that go into buildings and the equipment and supplies inside of them these days weren’t around then. You still had to observe all the precautions, he said. But not on the scale of today.
Speaking of scale, the biggest change within the operations of the department would be the sheer volume of calls. Remember how it used to be maybe 40 calls a year? Today it averages 55 a month. That’s 660 a year, or, about 16-and-a-half times what normal was in 1968. And most calls these days are for alarms going off, traffic accidents, and waterline breaks, Ted said.
Back in 1968, even the way to alert the company that there was an incident was more quaint. Walker Gordon Farms had a huge steam whistle that blew on shift changes, at 7 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m.
“It was so loud it could be heard all over Plainsboro,” Ted said.
If that whistle blew outside of shift change times, something was going down. And if an emergency happened during shift change, the fire whistle was different anyway. Shorter bursts instead of one long wail.
The steam whistle eventually got replaced with technology. At some point it became pagers. Now its phones, which alert the 40-plus members of the PFC to all those calls. Fifty years in – well, actually, 56 years in, if you count the time the Wagners spent hanging around the station with their father and involved in the Junior Firefighter Program—the Wagners say they respond to every call they can.
For Ted it’s a little easier. He’s newly retired, after 46 years, from Firmenich. There he worked mainly in plant safety and training employees. Given that the firm is in town, it made things easier for Ted in terms of getting to the fire station. And, by the way, he has nothing but gratitude for Firmenich and his bosses over the years. He said they always let him respond to a call, even in the middle of the work day. The company’s philosophy, he said, was that one day it may need guys like Wagner to get them through an emergency, so the least they could do was be a good neighbor.
Working, Ted made most calls, he said. He still makes about 90 percent of them.
While Roy has the same freedom to respond to a call, he doesn’t leave the day job much. He’s still working, in sales and service at Central Jersey power Equipment in Robbinsville. That’s a minimum two-minute drive to Plainsboro, on a good day.
So during his very (very) busy 8-5 workday, he doesn’t bother responding to the majority of calls. Most during the day are small matters, like an alarm going off.
“By the time I’d get there, everybody’d be coming back anyway,” he said.
Instead, he saves his sudden departure from work for larger problem like actual fires or extracions from auto accidents, perhaps. As he put it, “I bank those calls.”
But all that is only true during the work day. After five, when calls come in, Roy still makes most of them. Last year, he was the No. 2 responder to calls.
“I work six days a week and I do this,” he said of his vocation. “That pretty much tells you what my life is like.”
And it’s pretty much been like that for half a century. Sure, the Wagners went on vacation once in a while, not necessarily together. But for the most part, if you’ve had the PFC come to you at any point between the Mexico City Olympics and last week, the chances are excellent that you’ve met one or both of the Wagner brothers.
In all this talk of consistency, though, it should be pointed out that there’s something else rather consistent regarding the Wagner brothers is modesty. They appreciate that people respect their years of service, but they’d just as soon not have the fuss. Ted, in fact, would be perfectly happy with a commemorative plaque and a handshake.
“Me and my brother are only two people,” he said. “We have a great team, and if he an I walked out, the doors are going to go up and the trucks are going to go out.”
Others don’t mind speaking up on their behalf.
“To me, they’re heroes,” said Tom Healey, a 29-year member of the PFC and president from 2013 to 2017. “And they’re the best kind of heroes because they don’t see themselves as heroes or doing anything heroic.”
But, for 50 years, he said, the Wagners have “gotten out of bed on cold nights, pushed away from the dinner table, or left the mall in a hurry because someone either needed help or a fire alarm went off and there was that possibility. And they never looked for anything for doing it. To me, that’s truly heroic.”
Twenty-one years shy of the half-century mark, Healey also celebrates his anniversary with the fire company in June, like the Wagner brothers.
“At our fire company meetings, the secretary reads the anniversaries for that month,” he said. “You’ll hear, ‘Tom Healey, 29 years.’ And people will say, ‘Jeez, Tom, that’s terrific.’ Then, right after me, you’ll hear, ‘Roy and Ted Wagner, 50 years.’ And then you’ll hear people say, “What’s the matter with you, Healey? Are you a slacker or what?’”
The meals that go pushed away, that Healey mentioned—the Wagners are intimately familiar with the dynamic. And that means all the Wagners. There are lots of them involved in the PFC. Roy’s wife, Victoria, has served as the company secretary; his son, Matt, was once junior firefighter in Plainsboro and eventually the department chief (he’s now a career, paid firefighter in Millstone); his daughter, Beth, was an auxiliary member of PFC.
Meanwhile, Ted’s wife, Judy, has served on several committees in the company; his son, Jeff, was deputy chief; his other son, Brian, is the current deputy chief. It was many a time that Judy has made dinner only to see it left on the table, Ted said.
“It’s a hardship on your family,” he said. “You’re running out the door for dinner and saying, ‘I’ll be back.’
His wife understands, of course. For the most part, she’s 100 percent supportive, Ted said. Most times, she’ll say “I’ll see you later, just be careful.”
But once in a great while, Ted does get that look of, “Do you have to go?”
“Yes I do,” he said. “I really do have to go.”
The good news is, so far he’s always made it back. And these days, both Wagner brothers said they don’t really go into risky situations quite as often. Roy, as PFC’s current associate chief, has a bit more of an obligation, he said, but Ted, for the most part, drives and provides support on site these days. Both know they’re not 20 years old anymore, and both are comfortable with their roles in the fire company right now.
Both still enjoy it, too. And both said they’ll keep serving as long as they’re able. What is different, though, is how each regards the memories they’ve made over 50 years. For Ted, the answer to what was the most memorable call was PFC’s response to 9/11. Company members went to Staten island to help, but ultimately “ended up sitting around,” he said. But the very fact that it involved that particular date stands out most.
For Roy, the answer wasn’t really a call at all. It was the afterlife of one.
“Most of the time, when you respond to a motor vehicle accident,” he said, “you get someone out of the car, they go one way to the hospital and you go the other way.”
But one call, involving a badly hurt young man, gave him a surprise. “He and his mom came to a fire company meeting,” he said. And they brought treats, to say thank you.
“It’s a rare opportunity where you get to find out the outcome,” he said. “Where you get to meet somebody that you helped.”