David Houseal’s first memories of firefighting go back to when he was 5 or 6 years old in the mid-1950s, when his family lived in a house across the street from the old Progress firehouse in Susquehanna Township.
Whenever the wail of the station’s roof siren would pierce the air, young Houseal never failed to scramble up to his home’s top-floor attic for a bird’s eye view of the action.
As it turned out, that same little boy who hurried to watch the fire engines would grow up to become a Harrisburg firefighter and a noted curator of the city’s firefighting history.
“Firefighting is a very noble profession,” he said succinctly.
After a long career with the Harrisburg Fire Bureau, Houseal, now 69, retired as a chief in 2003.
Retirement, however, didn’t put a stop to Houseal. He’s since developed a second career as a book author and serves as historian of the Harrisburg bureau, a post he’s held since his appointment by former Mayor Stephen Reed.
Housel has authored several books about the Harrisburg area’s firefighting history and his own experience during his years of service. His first book, “We Can See It from the Bridge,” was published in 2010, titled after a phrase common to Harrisburg firefighters.
“I’ve always been a voracious reader, but there never really was anything to read about firefighting,” Houseal said. “A lot of people were craving books for firefighters written by firefighters. I draw a lot on my own stuff that I have and voluminous correspondence from others.”
Today, Houseal is pounding the keyboard to finish a fifth book in his converted writer’s cottage outside his South Hanover Township home. At first, his work was published in conjunction with “Engine 82” author Dennis Smith, “a really good friend,” he said. After Smith died five years ago, Houseal began self-publishing his books in conjunction with David A. Smith Printing of Harrisburg.
Years ago, Houseal also was appointed as chairman of the steering committee that established the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum.
“Dave has been involved with the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum since its inception and continues to be a driving force in the museum,” said Jason Lloyd, Harrisburg Bureau of Fire battalion chief and owner of the Allison Hook & Ladder Co. #2 firehouse. “While he’s contributed in so many ways to the fire companies he’s been involved with, I believe his involvement with the history of the service is his greatest accomplishment.”
Since 2003, the museum has been based in an 1899-era firehouse that once was home to the Reily Hose Co. No. 10 of Harrisburg. From the beginning, Houseal has tackled the role of historian with profound enthusiasm.
“Dave literally digs through endless archives at the museum, online resources and his family’s personal records to post events daily,” Lloyd said.
Among his many source materials: newspaper articles, historical photos and turn-of-the-century Sanborn city directory maps, meticulously research and cross-referenced. Much of his research eventually appears on the very active PA Fire Museum Facebook page.
“It’s just awesome what he does,” Lloyd said.
Considering Houseal’s lineage, it’s little wonder that he sprouted an avid interest in firefighting.
His father, Robert M. Houseal Jr., grandfather, Robert Houseal Sr., and two great-uncles all served as firefighters in the Harrisburg area, with Robert Sr. and Robert Jr. each attaining the posts of fire chief.
Houseal began volunteering as a local firefighter as soon as he was old enough to do so.
After serving four years in the U.S. Navy, he returned to Harrisburg to become the first graduate of HACC’s fire science program in 1974. A year later, he joined the ranks of the Harrisburg bureau, where he remained for nearly 30 years.
Nonetheless, Houseal said that he “never felt pressured” to continue the family’s firefighting dynasty. Instead, it was a passion he developed all on his own.
“I liked the people I worked with,” he said. “Being there was like a family.”
Firefighting research also is family tradition started by Houseal’s father.
“Grandpa always thought he was right about everything,” Houseal said. “So, that started dad to dig in and look for facts.”
Eventually, Houseal’s father compiled enough material during his long hours at the Pennsylvania State Library to fill four filing cabinets. After his father’s death in 1976, Dave became the obvious heir of these voluminous files, all of which provided a running start for his own recordkeeping.
“This is the kind of thing that makes Dave truly special,” Lloyd said. “He truly has a passion for both the fire service and the history.”
The Pennsylvania National Fire Museum is located at 1820 N. 4th St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.pnfm.org or call 717-232-8915.