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Charlie Stewart

Anwsering the Call
Logs crackling in the fireplace, candles burning on the mantel, holiday lights on the tree, and lots of cooking going on—just a few of the reasons why home fires are more prevalent in winter than any other season. But the good news is that there are incredibly dedicated local firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect us all.

Holiday 2012

CSThe call comes in to the Aspinwall Volunteer Fire Department at 7:45 p.m. on a week night.

“Residential fire alarm— O’Hara Town-ship,” the 31-year-old Assistant Chief Joe Giuffre Jr. says calmly as he and Nick Scheid, 73, stand up from the table.

The siren above the firehouse is already sounding. In just two minutes, the men suit up into their turnout gear—boots, pants, jacket, and helmet—and roll out in Engine 102-1.

Scheid, former chief and a retired mechanical engineer for Mobil Oil Company, is driving, and Giuffre, an admissions officer at Duquesne University, is in the officer’s seat manning the radio and checking the fastest route by GPS.

In the middle cab section, three other volunteer firefighters have appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Lou Curcio, 49, an emergency dispatcher for Allegheny County, is adjusting his headset. Iraq War veteran Walt Rosado, 28, who works in human resources for the United States Army, tightens his seat belt. And facing backwards by the window is Jake Poznik, a Fox Chapel Area High School senior studying HVAC at the A. W. Beattie Career Center. At 18, Poznik is the department’s newest active firefighter. He had been riding his bike when he was notified about the alarm by text message.

The engine’s siren accentuates the heightened sense of awareness and anticipation of the unknown that are palpable in the truck. Only that noise and the scratchy sounds from the radio, hardly understandable to the untrained ear, break the firefighters’ silence.

Variations of this scene play out time and again within the well-coordinated network of courageous firefighters—both volunteer and paid—who gladly, willingly, and vigilantly look after our neighborhoods every hour of every day. They are the minutemen of our time. They are ready to handle anything and everything from a strange odor, to lifting an elderly person who has fallen, to a fully involved structure fire.

And they are needed.

The 250 public service telecommunicators at Allegheny County’s 911 Communications Center in Point Breeze took a total of 1,242,513 emergency and non-emergency calls in 2011. That’s the equivalent of approximately one call from every man, woman, and child in the county.

Today’s real challenge is answering an increasing number of calls dispatched to the fire departments with a decreasing number of volunteers, who represent 70 percent of the estimated 1.1 million firefighters across the country, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

In 1975, there were 300,000 volunteers involved with the fire service in Pennsylvania. “The numbers continue to dwindle, and today, I actually think the number is close to 60,000,” says Ed Mann, fire commissioner of Pennsylvania.

CS“Years ago there were waiting lists to become a volunteer fireman,” recalls Scheid, who volunteered for the Aspinwall fire department in 1964 at age 23 to give back to his community and make it a better place for his fellow residents. “Nobody has a waiting list anymore. But we are luckier than most fire companies because we have a lot of people— 25 firefighters and nine juniors 15 to 17 years old.”

Left: At the Fire Training Academy on Washington Boulevard, city firefighters conduct annual hose tests to insure that each hose can withstand the necessary water pressure without leakage.

Of the 500 calls Aspinwall receives each year, 25 percent are false alarms. For instance, people call if their smoke detector is beeping when all they need to do is change the battery.

CS“But you’ll never hear us complain,” says Scheid, who has seen the total number of annual calls grow from 30 to 500 a year. “We would rather have you call us, even if it means getting 10 firefighters out of bed. We would prefer to come to check and determine whether or not we need to be there. If not, we will tell you ‘good night’ and to get a good night’s sleep.”

Neighboring O’Hara Township has two companies, Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Company and Parkview Volunteer Fire Department, which cooperate with Aspinwall, as well as other nearby or adjacent municipalities including Blawnox, Sharpsburg, and Fox Chapel. They work under a mutual aid agreement, whereby surrounding companies are requested to assist based on the nature of the emergency.

Right: The Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Company is one of two serving O’Hara Township and other surrounding communities.

“We all work well together,” says Pleasant Valley Captain Brian Kozera, 39, who joined in 1988 at age 15, having grown up listening to the siren going off at the fire hall right up the street. He is director of fire protective services for DunnRight, LLC, a commercial kitchen services company in Lower Burrell.

“We are all on the same terminology,” Kozera continues. “I went to Fox Chapel Area High School with a lot of those guys in the other fire halls. And now my kids are going to school with their kids. So we all know one another and know how to cooperate.”

Five new members joined the company in the last two years, according to Kozera, whose son, Logan, joined four years ago, also at age 15. And another son is about to turn 15 and follow in the same footsteps.

“We tell people they don’t have to be firefighters to help the department,” he says.

“They can help us on the administration side—keeping books or minutes. Maybe they jump on a fire engine and come on a call. Once you are a member, you can get on the engine. Hopefully that gets them interested.”

For those who commit to firefighting, whether as a volunteer or paid professional, the qualifications required are extensive. Paid firefighters do their training at the Fire Training Academy on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park. Volunteers must take a state-mandated minimum of 188 hours of coursework at the Allegheny County Fire Training Academy in North Park. Besides “Interior and Exterior Fire Fighter,” classes run the gamut from “Natural Gas Emergencies” to “Vehicle Rescue” to “Pet CPR.”

CS“The training that you go through requires climbing ladders and not being afraid of heights,” says Chief Bill Peoples of the Oakmont Volunteer Fire Department, where the minimum age requirement is 21. “An interior firefighter is going to put on a self-contained breathing apparatus, so you can’t be claustrophobic. You also need to be strong enough to move a 160-pound dummy out of a room and have common sense.”

Left: Oakmont volunteer firefighters (left to right) Captain David Carroll, Assistant Chief Ray Rogers, and Chief Bill Peoples.

And they have to make it a priority. “Once you join our fire department, your job, your home life, and your health are important, but we want to be number four or five on your priority list,” Peoples says. “When we are out at a restaurant and get a call, we have to take off, leaving our spouses. We can’t just say, ‘Well, I’m not going on this one.’”

Will Tippins was 16 when he talked his parents into letting him join the Fox Chapel Volunteer Fire Department, which has stations on both Fox Chapel and Dorseyville roads.CS

Right: protective gear for Fox Chapel’s volunteer firefighters hangs unbuttoned, for quick access. When worn with masks and oxygen tanks, standard gear weighs 60 to 70 pounds.

“My mother thought I was going to get hurt, but it’s actually really safe here because they focus on safety during training and on calls,” says Tippins, who just turned 18 and is a senior at Fox Chapel Area. “I always wanted to learn what I would do in the event of an emergency, and this was the answer. Training to be a firefighter gives me the ability to be prepared. Also, I used to stay at home, play video games, do my homework, and that’s it. This has really brought me into the community. And there’s a really great bunch of guys down here.”

CSTippins says that studying for his EMT (emergency medical technician) certification introduced him to the medical field, and now he is thinking of becoming a trauma surgeon. Plan B, of course, is to be a professional firefighter.

It took three weeks after joining up before his first call. “It was a fire alarm that turned out to be nothing,” he says. “But I still got the rush of getting on the engine and the lights and sirens. It opened the floodgates.”

Left: Clothes always sit at the ready so firefighters can quickly jump into their boots and pull up their pants. This set sits right in front of the fire truck door at 18 Engine on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill.

It’s the same rush whether one is a volunteer or paid professional with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, like Lieutenant Lloyd Browning of the D-Line with 18 Engine on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill.

“When you are coming up to a house you know is on fire, it’s pure adrenaline,” he says. Browning agrees firefighters are wired differently. “It’s not normal human nature to want to run into a burning building,” he says. “We’re all willing to risk our lives and get into danger to save a life if need be. That’s just a characteristic most people don’t have.”

Browning, 42, a Taylor Allderdice graduate and an ex-Navy avionics technician, estimates he fought about 12 “decent” fires in the past year. He says sometimes the best they can do is to preserve the structures next to a burning building by preventing a fire from carrying on down the block.

“I was at work when I was alerted that my next door neighbor’s house was on fire,” Shadyside resident David Hillman says.

“When I arrived, the house was engulfed in flames. Multiple companies of Pittsburgh firemen were spraying my home from all sides to keep it cool and protected, and I was extremely grateful they were able to save it.”

For the firefighters, the sense of reward can be just as great.

“This is the best job in the world,’ Browning says. “It’s rewarding internally whenever you get to save a life or help someone save their house or property. And with the way the hours work, I can spend a lot of time with my family. My wife just tells me to not talk about my job with our kids.”

Away from home, Lt. Browning has his own quarters at 18 Engine, where the firefighters sleep and nap in the bunkroom, originally the stable for when pumpers were horse-drawn. 18 Engine is a single house operating a quint, a sort of hybrid between an engine and a ladder truck. Four platoons or lines (A, B, C, and D), each with three firemen and an officer, are assigned to the house. Each line is on for 24 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. the following morning, and then off for 72 hours. They bring their own bedding and food and personally split all expenses for any amenities, like lounge chairs, couches, tables, TV, refrigerator, and equipment for the weight room.CS

CSSince the firefighters have to share the cooking at the house, they are fortunate when the chef is Mike Skruch, the two-time grand prize winner of the annual chili cook-off, an event that raises funds for The Salvation Army while raising awareness for fire safety and prevention and the mayor’s free smoke detector program (batteries included).

Skruch, on the D-Line with 8 Engine and Truck in East Liberty, won with his “Backdraft” chili recipe. “It was a landslide,” laughs the 40-year-old former driver for Pitt Ohio Express. “My chili is sweet and spicy.” If it’s his turn to cook, he might also make chicken cordon bleu with garlic potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli. “I just try to keep everybody happy,” he says. “If they like it, I make a note. If they complain, I just dirty up more pots and pans for them to wash after dinner.”

CSWith the public’s awareness of the importance of smoke detectors, plus more advanced fire alarm and suppression systems, cell phones, public education campaigns, and fire retardant products, there are fewer calls for fires and more for emergency medical services. More than half of the 43,159 calls that Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Fire responded to in 2011 were of a medical nature, which is why about 80 percent of Pittsburgh’s firefighters are EMTs.

Left: Among the team at the City of Pittsburgh’s 8 Engine and Truck are (Left to right) driver Rich Shay, firefighter Dan Doyle, and Captains Tom Reiser and James Petruzzi. Their Art Deco-style East Liberty firehouse was built in 1929.

“The firefighters have always shown their compassion, sensitivity, and extreme respect for my husband—I mean this from the bottom of my heart,” says Squirrel Hill resident Betsy Marcu, expressing her appreciation after firefighters responded immediately to her 911 call when her husband fell down the steps three years ago.

Still, the job can take its emotional toll.

“I don’t think there is another job in the world that is as exciting, challenging, terrifying— physically, emotionally, and mentally— as this job,” says Lieutenant Kurt Reinheimer, 32, a fourth-generation firefighter at 17 Engine and Truck in Homewood, which is the first to get to Point Breeze. “Saving somebody from a fire, car accident, heart attack, drug overdose, anything, is an amazing feeling. But if we start our shift at eight in the morning and someone dies on us, there’s really no time to mourn. We still have the whole shift left, with the community counting on us.”

CSLike when the residential fire alarm went off in Aspinwall recently, with firefighters Scheid and Giuffre in the front seat of the truck racing off to the unknown. Once at the scene, they learned that smoke from an outdoor grill had wafted into the kitchen and set off the fire alarm. Giuffre radioed to return the other companies already in route. “False alarm,” he announced.

Left: Patriotism is in proud display on the grill of this fire truck at 17 Engine and Truck in Homewood.

False alarm, perhaps, but better safe than sorry, says Patrick Shaw, a lieutenant with 17 Engine and Truck and a former Marine who served on active duty for six years including during Operation Desert Storm.

“It’s a nice feeling when a random person stops at the fire house and says, ‘I just want to say thanks for what you guys do,’” Shaw says. “I would like people to remember that regardless of what your emergency is, we are here for you 24/7, 365 days a year. No matter what you need, no matter what time of day or night, call 911, and we will be there, without a doubt.”CS

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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