A series of tones sounded at the Gloucester Central Fire Station around dinnertime Thursday, and two firefighters rushed out toward an ambulance to assist with a medical call.
Rushing down the stairs right behind them was a small figure clad in denim shorts, flip flops and an American flag T-shirt: Matthew Weinberg, age 13.
He wasn’t going to jump on board to go to the call; he’s too young, and not allowed for liability reasons. But normally, he’d be rushing to the front of the station where the garage doors were open, to shoot video of the departing vehicles.
This time, he simply watched closely as the vehicle pulled out with lights flashing and made its way to the call. Then he ran back inside the building and up to the hall where dinner was being served — his choice this evening, freshly grilled cheeseburgers and fresh corn on the cob — and rubbed elbows with Group 4, the crew on duty, laughing as they good-naturedly teased one another.
Weinberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, doesn’t even live in Gloucester; he lives in Henderson, Nev. He has no family members who are firefighters. But he’s been getting to know the firefighters in the Gloucester department pretty well, not only in person for the last three weeks — he’s been visiting family nearby on Prospect Street — but via Facebook, too.
He greatly enjoys the firefighting culture, and the people who do this work.
“It’s not so much a hobby as a habit,” he said. He especially likes the Gloucester fire department because, unlike other departments where he’s spent time, including in a previous town in Kentucky, he noticed that dispatching takes place from within the fire station, not from a central location, and he’s intrigued by that. He has been spending quality time in the watch room, where dispatching takes place, and has learned how to sound tones and make announcements.
He loves the trucks, the sirens, the colors, the noise, the preparation and work firefighters do with their vehicles and hoses — not so much the actual fighting of fires, but everything that goes into it behind the scenes.
He’s loved it since he was a little kid, he said. He also notices how amazing it is when they snap into action on a moment’s notice, from being relaxed or doing other tasks and training or just teasing each other.
His mother thinks it could be genetic. Her own mother loved to listen to scanners and was a fan of firefighters and police when she was alive and living in Los Angeles, said Maryellen Barr Weinberg, originally from Gloucester. However, Matthew never met his grandmother, who passed away before he was born.
In any case, his mother, who also enjoys listening to their portable scanner, supports his habit a little bit, but she does try to limit how often he visits firehouses — including and especially during the school year — to once a week. While on vacation in Gloucester, he’s able to walk down to the firehouse and pops in for a couple hours almost every day.
Local firefighters, meanwhile, have found him a refreshing and welcoming sight. Firefighter Michael Chipperini said Matthew’s visits and his appreciation for their work “is a nice example of a great relationship we have with the community.”
“It’s nice to see that interest from afar,” Chipperini said. “He knows quite a bit about us from Facebook.”
“I’ve studied a lot and done a lot of research,” about firefighting work, the teenager said. He might join Explorers when he gets old enough, so he can participate more with the crews instead of just observing from the sidelines. He likes to incorporate firefighting knowledge into his school projects, spending time at the firehouses in his new hometown in Nevada as in his previous town in Kentucky.
Maryellen said Matthew’s Asperger’s “is a positive influence.”
“He seems older because of it,” she said, “but he’s really good at bringing me out of my shell.” To that, Matthew interjected jokingly, “That was my intention” — so she could bring him to a firehouse where he could hang out. She said she was impressed, for example, when he walked right in to the firehouse and into the watch room, greeted the firefighters, and immediately fit in.
“I didn’t realize how much he knew them,” she marveled. “He’s been welcomed (into their brotherhood) no matter where they go.”
His other hobbies include watching the weather, animals, and cooking. While in Gloucester, he saw the Greasy Pole Walk, the Horribles Parade, the Rockport Firemen’s Parade and bonfire, and has become partial to Good Harbor Beach.
While his family is looking for a new home to buy in Nevada, he has some important criteria: the house must be near school and have a pool, and most importantly, must be walking distance from a firehouse.
“Please, mom!” he said.
Allegra Boverman is the chief photographer and a staff writer for the Gloucester Daily Times. She can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3448 and at firstname.lastname@example.org