The 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
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
“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
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.
“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
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
Right: The Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Company is
one of two serving O’Hara Township and other
“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.”
“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
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.”
Tippins 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.
Since 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
With 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
Like 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