Bower Hill VFD History
Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department was chartered in 1924 to answer a public outcry for Scott Township to provide fire protection to southern portions of the township. It was only with the threat of incorporation as a borough and secession from the township that the township commissioners reluctantly agreed to allow a fire department and provide a public water supply to the area. From an initial membership of twelve, the department grew rapidly, and five years later, 54 men, or nearly 20% of the adult male population of the community, were members. The department's first firefighting apparatus was an ex-World War I, U.S. Army Surplus hand-drawn hose cart, but this was soon replaced by a motorized Chemical and Hose Car. The department enjoyed great support from the Bower Hill community and continued to grow and prosper as Bower Hill, formerly a small coal mine and mill town, became a residential suburb of Pittsburgh. The Bower Hill VFD survived the depression years and World War II with limited resources but great resourcefulness. The department accepted its first female member, Esther Padgelek, during the war years. After the war, the residential housing boom changed the balance of power in the township government, and the department finally began to see support from township officials.
As the community grew, the department moved from its single-garage building in the heart of the "old" Bower Hill neighborhood to a new building on the other side of the railroad line, closer to the growing suburban neighborhoods. Bower Hill VFD began to provide ambulance service in 1956, and this service soon comprised the majority of the department's call volume.
By 1983, Bower Hill VFD was the Advanced Life Support ambulance provider for the township, and EMS responses were approaching 500 calls per year. The population of Scott Township peaked in the 1960s and '70s. By this time, nearly all possible building sites were occupied, and in subsequent decades, the population would fall as young adults with families were no longer able to find housing in the township.
The Junior Fire Brigade, launched unofficially in 1957 and officially organized in 1969, trained many young people in firefighting and EMS skills, and many of the Junior members would later become the leaders of the department, though many others would take these skills elsewhere as they moved out of the community to find work and raise families. By the 1990s, the fire department faced the double problem of a decreasing pool of young adults willing to become firefighters and EMS providers, and an aging population that needed more care. In 1997, Bower Hill joined with Glendale Hose Company No. 1 to form Scott Township EMS to provide continuous ALS ambulance coverage to the township. The department maintained its aggressive "hands-on" fire fighting approach with continuously improved equipment and regular training.
In its 90-year history, Bower Hill has owned 26 firefighting and emergency vehicles, and co-owned seven ambulances with Glendale Hose Company No. 1. Today, the department operates three Engines, one Squad, and one Command vehicle, and with Glendale, supplies four jointly-owned ambulances to Scott Township EMS. Though no comprehensive membership roster exists, from existing rosters we know that at least 400 men and women have served as members over the years. At present, Bower Hill has about 30 firefighting members and about 60 supporting members, as well as about 10 members who are currently inactive. The department continues to focus on Engine Company operations, since this is the greatest need in the service area. Mutual aid agreements and cooperation with neighboring departments provide for Truck Company, Rescue Company and other services. Bower Hill, in cooperation with Glendale, provides Rapid Intervention Team (RIT, sometimes known as "Go Team") response to neighboring departments.
So, on to the story.
The history that follows is necessarily incomplete in spite of its (probably excessive) length, and much of it is anecdotal. Most of the written records of the department and of the township from earlier than September of 1956 were lost in the hurricane-related Chartiers Creek flood of August 6th of that year. (If history's any guide, we get a really big hurricane-spawned flood here about every 16 years, though we managed to skip one in 1988 somehow. So the next one is due around 2020 or so. We're ready now, anyway.) We welcome any additions or corrections to the facts presented here, and any additional insights into this history. One of the chief hazards of the World Wide Web is its ability to disseminate incorrect information so quickly and widely. On the other hand, its volatility means that mistakes can be corrected just as easily. We’d like to have this history be as accurate as possible. We’ll save comprehensiveness for another site or another medium, some other time. Meanwhile, stop back to this page occasionally to see what else we’ve uncovered. We also welcome any submissions of historical items; news clippings, other documents, and especially photographs about the department and its relationship to the community. As we receive them, and as the site designer has the time, we'll try to incorporate them.
Special thanks are due to the people of the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department and from the community who contributed, often completely unwittingly, to this history. Among these are many who are no longer with us, and it is to them that this history is dedicated. Chief among these are Karl Oelschlager, Art Fishburn, Pete and Charlie Kuna, Sherman “Doe” and Roscoe “Rocky” Padgelek, Eugene Levi, Sr. and Richard Braun of the department, and Agnes Robinson, teacher at the former Henry Roberts Elementary School and a lifelong resident of southern Scott Township, who told many great stories about the history of the community during the many long mornings while we were waiting for the bus to Pittsburgh in 1976 - 1980. Among the living are just about every current life member of the department, but particularly Bob Berdnik and Ceil Kitchen who gave access to the old records.
And extra special thanks to each and every man and woman, boy and girl who has ever served in the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department, however long or short that service was. You made this department what it is today, and we’re proud to continue your work. This is your story, and we can never afford to forget it.
In 1924, Scott Township was a small but thriving municipality. Coal mines, oil wells and gas wells dotted the township map, and heavy industries in and around the township employed hundreds. Three steam railroads and one electric trolley line provided freight and passenger transportation to nearly anywhere. Much of the township was farmland, along with a few developed mining and mill towns. About half of the total population of the township lived in the area along Chartiers Creek at the north-south center of the township, in a neighborhood known as Glendale. The Superior Steel mill was there, as were O. Hommel Company and the large Mansfield coal mines. Since the mid-1880s, this part of the township had been its center of political power, and had at least some paved streets, electric street lights, and city water and sewer service. These amenities were found nowhere else in the township. The next most populous and developed part of the township was historic Bower Hill, site of the deadliest battle in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. In the 19th Century, the Bower Hill area became home to several very productive coal mines, and these mines were worked by immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe and Germany. It gained a reputation as a violent, "Wild West" kind of place, and this reputation was reinforced by its involvement in the early days of the labor union movement. As the labor movement gained success, and as the immigrants assimilated into American culture, the notorious reputation faded, and the James B. Sipe Paint Company opened a new plant in Bower Hill, bringing jobs and more stability. This was not reflected in the township government, where three of the five voting wards, and therefore, township commissioners, were in Glendale. Every attempt to extend the amenities found in the center of the township to Bower Hill were denied by the township board of commissioners. Joseph McGill was the representative on this board from Bower Hill, and he worked tirelessly to see these essential services provided to his bailiwick.
In the fall of 1924, the residents of the southern portions of Scott Township including Bower Hill relied on the Bridgeville Borough and Mount Lebanon Township Fire Departments for fire protection. (Residents of the northernmost parts of the township relied on Chartiers Township Volunteer Fire Department. This department would reincorporate about five years later as East Carnegie VFD, after Chartiers was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh.) The Glendale Volunteer Fire Department was the only fire department in Scott Township, and although it was designated by the township commissioners to provide fire protection to the township, it refused to respond to Bower Hill, citing the distance and the lack of fire hydrants to which it could connect its hoses. At the time, Glendale operated only a hose wagon, and had to pull it by hand to the scene of a fire. Mount Lebanon and Bridgeville had purchased new American La France fire engines in 1923 and 1924 respectively, and could provide firefighting capability even without hydrants. Still, it usually took well over fifteen minutes for any fire apparatus to reach Bower Hill. The township commissioners had long refused to authorize the organization of another fire department in the township, but the situation was becoming intolerable. In September of 1924, Commissioner McGill called for a meeting in the old Bower Hill School on Thompson Street to raise public interest in the effort to secure a public water supply and fire protection for the Bower Hill, Woodville and Leasdale neighborhoods in the southern part of the township. The meeting was well attended, and the attendees were quite vocal. The residents, especially those belonging to an organization called "The Bowerton League," voiced the opinion that if the township was not willing to provide essential public services including a water supply, and allow a local fire department, that they would have no choice but to incorporate as a borough and secede from Scott Township. A preliminary petition was drafted, proposing that all that portion of the township lying south of Scrubgrass Run be incorporated as the Borough of Bowerton. Scott Township had seen its area decreased by more than one-half in two previous secessions, those of Dormont Borough in 1909 and Mount Lebanon Township in 1912, and these areas had seceded over these same issues. The commissioners were most interested in seeing that they didn’t lose the economically important Bower Hill, Woodville and Leasdale neighborhoods and about one-third of the township's remaining land area. They quickly authorized further meetings to arrange the establishment of both a public water supply and a volunteer fire department in the southern section of the township. The water supply was completed before the end of the year and two fire hydrants were placed in service, one in Bower Hill and one in Woodville, and the township board of commissioners secured a building on Montgomery Avenue to house the fire department.
Twelve men volunteered to become the first Bower Hill firefighters. They began the steps necessary to organize the department. The first election of officers of the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department was held in November, 1924. The executive officers were: Edward Kissich, President; Frank Ringel, Vice President; Joseph Perlechek, Secretary; and Martin Schneider, Treasurer. Only two line officers were elected: Frank Ringel, Chief; and Joseph Perlechek, Captain.
The department entered service with a hand-drawn hose cart and a few hundred feet of fire hose, two hand-pumped water fire extinguishers, and some canvas coats and leather helmets, all purchased used, reportedly from U.S. Government World War 1 surplus. There were no ladders, no axes or hooks, and no pumping engine. The static pressure in the new public water supply, which by early 1925 included 15 fire hydrants, was sufficient to get water through the hose without an engine or pump in the areas closest to the creek and in the “downtown” of the Bower Hill, Woodville and Leasdale neighborhoods, and firefighters supplied their own hand tools and ladders. The members immediately planned to acquire a motorized fire engine and the proper firefighting equipment to provide the level of service the community deserved and had reason to expect. Fund raising became as important an aspect of membership in the fire department as fire fighting training. The residents and businesses responded, and within a few months the department bought a Ford Model T truck chassis and had a Howe combination chemical and hose fire apparatus body installed on it. This type of apparatus was simply a very large soda-acid pressurized fire extinguisher and hose wagon, but it provided firefighting capabilities both close to and away from the water mains. The canvas coats were replaced with rubberized ones, and metal helmets replaced leather. New equipment followed. Firefighters no longer needed to bring their own ladders and axes to the call.
During its first decades of service, the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department served a community that was compact and tight-knit. Citizens cared and were involved in the department. Most of the population of the community worked either in the mines, at the paint plant, or in the steel mill, glass plant or bolt works across the creek in Collier Township. The fire department was as much a community center as a public safety agency. By 1928, membership had grown from the original 12, to 54. Few records remain of any major fires or incidents from this era. Members from this era recounted stories of many small house fires and fires in some of the mine and mill buildings, and at the many gas wells and oil derricks, and of the yearly flooding of Chartiers Creek. They remembered being summoned to calls by the member who took the call hammering on the steel tire from a locomotive wheel with a large wooden mallet. In 1928, the department got a new 5HP electric siren to replace the locomotive tire and mallet. The community was also equipped with city fire alarm call boxes. Sadly, no record remains as to what type of boxes these were or where they were located. By 1930, almost all houses in the community had telephone service, and the telephone became the primary means of summoning the department, at phone “Bridgeville 30” (department member Morris Abramovitz's general store on Montgomery Avenue) during the day, and “Bridgeville 139-M” (Chief Ringel's home) at night.
The firemen were also improving their equipment. Apparently, the Model T Ford was proving inadequate for the service required and the department began searching for a newer, more capable vehicle. On Thanksgiving Day, 1926, an International Model S Chemical and Hose Car replaced the old Ford. The builder's picture of this piece appears on page 99 of the book American Fire Engines Since 1900 by Walter McCall (Crestline Publishing, 1976). This vehicle would serve the department for the next 18 years, and this length of service would become the norm for the department's equipment.
The great depression saw the closure of many of the mines that supported the community, and the end of passenger train service on the Pittsburgh & West Virginia and the Pittsburgh, Chartiers & Youghiogheny lines. (Passenger service remained on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s line until 1952). The new William Flinn Highway replaced the old Pittsburgh and Washington Pike as the principal road to points north and south of the community. The automobile began to appear in greater numbers, but the nearly universal mobility it would later bring was mostly unrealized, since many roads remained unpaved and were unsuitable for regular automobile travel. A 1929 fire prevention booklet published by the department ends with a note that residents should appeal to the county to pave Montgomery Avenue and that this, along with the completion of, “the new connecting highway from the Pittsburgh - West Virginia viaduct to the Bower Hill road…" would “bring this vicinity in close relationship with the South Hills…” This "new connecting highway" is the road that we know today as Vanadium Road. Most of the approximately 750 residents of Bower Hill still worked locally and the community was still close. The fire department was very much the community center.
During the Second World War, many Bower Hill firefighters went off to serve in the armed forces. During this era, Bower Hill became one of the first fire departments to accept a woman as a full active member, when Esther Padgelek joined the department. At the time, no insurance carrier would cover a woman as a firefighter, so she was listed on the roster simply as “E. Padgelek.” The entire community contributed to public protection as well as to the war effort. Local industries, which produced steel, paint and glass, and made rifle and artillery barrels among other products, were essential to war production. Fire protection for these facilities was imperative, and the managers of the factories and mills encouraged all employees to volunteer as firefighters.
The department had to replace its Chemical and Hose Car during the war years. It had long exceeded its useful service life, and parts were completely unavailable. The department members cobbled temporary parts and held together what they could, but from April of 1942 to February of 1944, the truck was out of service more than it was available. Finally, in February of 1944, the old International was rendered beyond repair by mechanical failure and the department returned to fighting fires with hand extinguishers. With this, after two years of paperwork and petitions, the War Production Board finally authorized the department to purchase a new pumper. The chassis was a 1942 White, Model WA114, and the apparatus body and 500 Gallon per Minute (GPM) pump came from American Fire Apparatus. During the struggle to get approval from the War Production Board, the officials of local industries wrote numerous letters in support of the department and its contribution to the war effort. A telegram of April 29, 1944 notes that the lack of a suitable pumper cost the war effort a major oil well that was totally destroyed by fire along with its derrick, all its outbuildings and two nearby dwellings, three days earlier on April 26th. This seemed to make a difference. On May 4, the War Production Board gave its approval, and on May 17, the chassis was sent to the apparatus builder. The completed vehicle, the first pumper the department ever owned, was delivered and went into service just after the Allied invasion of Europe began in June.
In 1941, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department met for the first time. Though the phrase “pillar of the community” is a cliché, it truly applies to ladies of the auxiliary. They instituted the first Bingo fund raisers in 1942 at Bower Hill School, and raffled Defense Bonds to support the war effort and the fire department. In 1947, they bought the Community Honor Roll to honor the military veterans from Bower Hill who served in the Second World War. This monument, originally erected at Bower Hill School, now stands at the site of the Bower Hill state historical marker on Kane Boulevard thanks to the efforts of the Scott Conservancy.
At war’s end, the Bower Hill community would change drastically and rapidly from a small mining and mill town surrounded by farmland into a residential suburb. The population increased tenfold, and with it, the demands on the department. According to anecdotes from this time, construction site fires and accidents were common. However, because the majority of the structures now in the area were new, fires in occupied structures were rare. By now, the entire area was covered by a public water supply, and almost no structure in the township was more than 1000 feet from a fire hydrant.
The community now had a new need: Ambulance service. Prior to the war, Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh and a few other hospitals had provided this service, but these had been discontinued because of personnel and materiel shortages during the war. The Scott Township Police Department was providing limited ambulance service, and Glendale Hose Company No. 1 (formerly Glendale Volunteer Fire Department, renamed in the 1930s) began providing ambulance service to the township, but call volumes often outstripped the ambulance’s availability. In 1954, Bower Hill began to provide ambulance service with a 1948 GMC Panel Truck donated by the Pennsylvania Boys Reform School in South Fayette Township. Ambulance calls soon exceeded fire calls by nearly a 2:1 margin.
The advent of almost universal automobile ownership brought about another problem relatively new to the area: automobile accidents. Bower Hill Road was widened to four lanes to accommodate higher speeds, and nearly all roads in the community were paved with asphalt. With more cars going faster, more accidents resulted in the entrapment of the occupants. The department bought a used Jeep CJ2A for conversion into a mobile power plant and light rescue vehicle. The conversion was done entirely by members of the department.
Of course, these new apparatus purchases would have been impossible if the department had remained in its single-garage building on Montgomery Avenue. In 1953, Bower Hill Fire Department swapped its property on Montgomery Avenue for an abandoned strip mine site at 161 Vanadium Road. A new two-bay concrete block building made housing more than one piece of equipment possible for the first time, and its location was now a little closer to the center of the department’s service area. The Ladies Auxiliary made the down payment of $3,500.00 for the new building.
In the late 1950s, the character of the community and the demands on the department would change again. In 1958, the John J. Kane Hospital opened. This was a nursing home for the aged and disabled indigent residents of Allegheny County, who had previously been cared for at Mayview and Woodville Hospitals, previously known as the Pittsburgh City Poor Farm and the Allegheny County Home. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over responsibility for caring for the mentally challenged, they took over the Mayview and Woodville facilities. The county still had the responsibility for caring for the aged and disabled indigent, so the John J. Kane Hospital was built. This complex contained the first true high-rise in the Bower Hill area, the eight-story Tower Building. The county provided on-site fire protection with full-time county firefighters and ambulance transportation services with county nurses. Bower Hill would be the first back up service for both. As a benefit, the Allegheny County Fire Department station at Kane took over the responsibility for answering the emergency telephones and dispatching the fire departments in the Chartiers Valley. By this time, radio monitors were beginning to take the place of the fire siren as the primary means of alerting the volunteers to respond. Bower Hill became “Station 4” on the new radio system, and the number “4” soon adorned the department’s vehicles and fire helmets.
The Bower Hill community continued to grow as more farmland fell to suburban development. A new shopping center was built at the corner of Bower Hill Road and the new North Wren Drive, next to St. Clair Memorial Hospital. A redrawing of the border between Scott Township and Mount Lebanon Township put this center entirely within Scott. (The other part of this redrawing put the Virginia Manor Shops on Greentree Road entirely in Mount Lebanon.) These new buildings demanded upgrades in the department’s equipment. In 1957, the department added a new American LaFrance 800 Series Invader pumper capable of a 750GPM flow. The donated ambulance and the old White pumper were both replaced in 1960 by a new GMC Panel Truck ambulance that also incorporated a small booster pump and water tank, and in 1962, the CJ2A Jeep was replaced by a new specially built rescue and 20KW power plant unit on a Jeep FC170 chassis.
One of the negative effects of suburbanization was the loss of the sense of the fire department as a community center. In the 1930s, most of the population of the community lived and worked near the fire station, and membership in the department as a volunteer was a source of pride and conveyed a certain prestige. By the 1960s, a much larger population lived throughout the department's service area in many different neighborhoods, and worked throughout the Pittsburgh region. The new suburbanites saw themselves as “Pittsburghers” or South Hills residents, but felt no particular identity with Bower Hill. In fact, since Scott Township had no post office of its own, and since the forced consolidation of schools in 1956 eliminated the township school district (though the high school remained until 1960), many residents were completely unaware that they lived in Scott Township, much less as part of a community called Bower Hill. These people belonged to many different church groups and civic organizations, each with its own focus and agenda. The fire department needed to work much harder to stay in the eyes and hearts of the community. Nor was the volunteer firefighter any longer an honored or prestigious member of the community. The suburban mass-consumer culture disdains all volunteer service as "menial," and is more likely to show contempt rather than honor to those who risk themselves to serve others. So, a much smaller proportion of the residents had any interest in volunteering to serve the community that they didn't identify with anyway. They were "takers," not "givers." So, at the same time, these same people placed more insistent and persistent demands on the department than ever before. The department began actively recruiting members for the first time.
Through the 1960s, ambulance service accounted for the majority of the department’s call volume. Firefighters were trained in Red Cross Advanced First Aid and later, in Pennsylvania’s Ambulance Attendant Course. The letters CPR, which stand for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, were seen for the first time. The fire siren was still used to alert members to calls, and it blew nearly daily and sometimes more, to announce another need for emergency care and transportation. Still, fire service was never neglected. Though the number of fires in the Bower Hill area remained small, the firefighters trained constantly to be ready for anything. Mutual Aid responses to neighboring communities continued to be frequent. When a fire did start in Bower Hill, it was fought with speed and skill, and fire losses in the community remained very low. Firefighters were better protected than ever before. The introduction of plastics and other petrochemical based materials in household goods meant that fires now produced more toxic gases than ever, and often burned hotter. The old rubberized canvas coat and metal helmet were replaced with the heavy cotton duck “bunker coat” and the fiberglass helmet. Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) became mandatory for entry into a burning building. These early units used heavy steel compressed air cylinders, and coupled with the increased weight of the cotton duck coats, added about 40 pounds to the load each firefighter carried on each call.
By the late 1960s, the Bower Hill area was nearly fully developed. Little open land remained, and much of that was zoned for conservation or was unsuitable for building. The mines were gone, and the paint plant would soon follow. The oil wells were gone. A few natural gas wells remained, but these were mostly unattended and operated without attracting much attention. The steel mill and glass plant across the creek in Collier were still going strong, but Flannery Bolt Company, which had been dependent on the steam locomotive building industry, was gone. The reality was that Bower Hill was now a residential suburb of Pittsburgh, and little of the old sense of community remained. Residents now commuted to Pittsburgh for work, or worked for a government, school, or hospital in the area, or in the growing retail or service industries. Most of the old miners and mill workers who had been the department’s backbone were retired, both as laborers and as firefighters.
The department was now recruiting a new kind of firefighter, a suburbanite with a sense of dedication and service, often well educated and skilled in areas other than manual labor, who was just the kind of firefighter needed in the coming years as the job became more complex and technical. In 1969, the department officially instituted its Junior Fire Brigade, consisting of students from ages 13 to 17. This program allowed the youth of the community a safe place to gather, and taught them the skills necessary to be a firefighter. The program also helped to build a sense of community and a sense of identity in the department. As the years passed, graduates of the Junior Fire Brigade assumed many of the leadership roles in the department.
The department’s facilities changed, too. It added a two-bay addition to the fire station in 1967, complete with a kitchen and both Men’s and Women’s rest rooms. With this addition, the department reintroduced a fund raising Bingo on Friday nights. The added room accommodated more equipment, too. In 1969, the GMC Panel Truck was supplanted in ambulance service by a new 1969 Cadillac with a Superior Coach Ambulance conversion. Late that year, the 1957 American LaFrance pumper had a total engine failure. The parts for the old 12-cylinder American LaFrance engine were no longer available. The department secured a Ford V8 truck engine of about the same size and horsepower from a retired school bus, and did the engine replacement completely in-house. At the same time, a “new truck” committee was formed. The primary criterion for the new piece was, “What can we get quickly and inexpensively?” Fortunately, a 1970 pumper that supported the demonstrator of the American Fire Apparatus “Aqua Jet” (a hydraulically operated elevated deluge nozzle) was immediately available at a very low price. Repainted in International Harvester Red, from its demonstrator colors of metallic red, white and blue, and with the problematic (and never commercially successful) Aqua Jet replaced with a standard deck-mounted deluge gun, this engine, which could pump 1000GPM, joined the Bower Hill roster.
Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1974. From August 7th to August 10th, the department grounds hosted a festival in honor of this milestone. The “Monte Carlo Week” and parade were very well attended. This was the first such fair and parade in Bower Hill since the 1930s. The community once again saw its fire department as a source of pride, and a public asset. The commemorative booklet published to mark the event contained historic and current photographs, a history of the department, the Ladies Auxiliary and the Junior Fire Brigade and advertisements from local businesses and well-wishers. It is a snapshot of the department and the community.
The department was particularly proud if its new 1973 mini-pumper and light rescue truck that had replaced the old Jeep power plant and the GMC Panel Truck that had been relegated to mini-pumper and squad duties since 1969. This apparatus was built by Pierce Manufacturing Company on a Ford chassis, and had a pump capacity of only 250GPM. It was typical of the era. The 1970s were a time of rapid technological advancement in the fire service. While it may be seen today as a fad, the mini-pumper was a good use of the technology of the day. Full size fire apparatus were getting excessively large and expensive, but they were also getting slower and more difficult to operate. The "light attack" pumper used the technology of the day to provide a solution to overcome these limitations. Technology would continue to advance, and would soon overtake the “light attack” concept. This vehicle would be the last pumping engine the department would own that had a manual transmission and gasoline engine. All subsequent pumpers would be diesel powered and equipped with automatic transmissions, and would have pump capacities of 1500GPM or more, but would be nearly as easy to operate as the mini-pumper.
Though the fire apparatus got the attention, the ambulance was still answering most of the calls. The early 1970s saw another new acronym enter the department’s vocabulary: EMS, which stands for Emergency Medical Service. Until this time, the ambulance was merely a vehicle that provided rapid patient transportation. Any care that was given by the ambulance crew was simple first aid. It was presumed to be true that only licensed physicians and nurses were capable of providing more advanced care, and it was provided at the scene, not during transportation of the patient. During the Vietnam War, the military began to train non-medically-licensed soldiers, soon known as paramedics, to provide advanced care in the field, and to continue this care throughout transport, whether by ground ambulance or by helicopter. This, they found, saved lives. Now, instead of the ambulance rushing the patient to the hospital, it rushed care to the patient.
The department suffered a serious loss at the close of 1974 when Chief Dick Choura died from cancer in early December. Dick was a career firefighter for Allegheny County as well as a Chartiers Valley school board member. The department had a fully capable replacement, though, as Assistant Chief Bob Berdnik had ample qualifications and energy, and had the full support of the department.
Bower Hill held its first Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) class in the fall of 1974. Within five years, an EMT would be present on every ambulance call. The first EMT-Paramedics, who were trained to provide more advanced care, finished training in 1976. As Ambulance Service became EMS, the department upgraded its equipment to keep pace with the new technology. A new specification for ambulances came from the United States General Service Administration. Officially known as GSA Specification KKK-A-1822, it defined the minimum standards for what an ambulance should be. The old suburban and hearse types were not in compliance with this specification. In 1978, the department purchased a new ambulance that met the specification. It was a Dodge van with a Wayne Coach “Medicruiser” high-top conversion (known in the KKK-A-1822 spec as a “Type II” ambulance). Early the next year, Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department and Holiday Park VFD in Plum Borough became the first two volunteer fire department ambulance services in Allegheny County to be awarded the Certificate of Excellence under the Voluntary Ambulance Service Certification (VASC) program. Bower Hill would maintain VASC certification until it was superseded by mandatory statewide ambulance service licensure in 1985.
Technology and education were changing how the department provided ambulance service. The same was also true of firefighting. Changes in building construction and the materials used in building contents meant that fires were now more dangerous to fight than ever. Lightweight truss construction meant that roofs and floors would collapse much earlier and with less warning. Plastics and synthetic fibers had almost totally replaced wood and cloth in furnishings, and emitted toxic smoke and gases when they burned. Firefighting classes stressed the importance of preplanning. Fire officers had to know about the architecture and potential hazards of the buildings in the area, and have plans ready to meet the dangers they presented. Firefighters had to be better protected than ever. Though synthetic materials presented the new threat, they would also provide the new defense. The cotton duck bunker coat was replaced by the Nomex and Kevlar turnout suit, complete with coat and pants, and the fiberglass helmet was replaced by new lightweight polycarbonate models. Heavy steel SCBA cylinders were replaced by fiberglass, aluminum and resin composite tanks at about half the weight. Polycarbonate and lightweight alloy hose nozzles and hose couplings replaced heavy brass. Fire engines became more powerful and reliable. On August 13, 1977, Bower Hill took delivery of its first diesel powered fire apparatus, a new 1977 American LaFrance Century Series pumper of 1500GPM capacity, which replaced the 1957 pumper from the same manufacturer. All this assured that the department kept pace with the hazards it encountered.
Meanwhile, the financial needs of the department were the same as always. Friday Night Bingo was a mainstay of financial support. But it was still being held in the garage bays of the station, and on frigid winter nights, it became difficult to keep the water in the fire engines from freezing while they were parked outside. So, in 1980, the department added a second story to the station building. The upstairs meeting hall was dedicated to the memory of the deceased members of the department. In addition to housing the Bingo, it served as the main meeting hall for department meetings and classes, and was available for rental.
The department's fire prevention programs began to change during this era. All firefighters know that the easiest fire to fight is the one than never starts. Fire prevention has been a part of the Bower Hill Fire Department’s operations since its earliest days. (In fact, one of the most useful documents in preparing the first sections of this history was a Fire Prevention Bulletin issued by the department in 1929). From the 1950s to the early 1980s Bower Hill sponsored a Fire Prevention Week poster contest in the local public and parochial elementary schools. Beginning in the 1970s, the department developed a program for preschoolers as well, and presented it at daycare and preschool classes. By the 1980s, the school population was declining and the department began to focus on home fire prevention. It offered free smoke detector Christmas ornaments to anyone who donated to the annual fund drive one year in the 1980s, and began to offer "Tot-Finder" and immobile occupant identification stickers to residents.
The department's fire prevention programs would change even more in the 1980s and 1990s. The Fire Prevention Week open house at the fire station began in the early 1990s, as the Chartiers Valley School District consolidated its primary schools into one building in Collier Township, ending the fire prevention program in the schools. The loss of the public elementary school was not the only major change to the Bower Hill community in the 1980s and 1990s. The John J. Kane Hospital that had opened in 1958, closed in 1983. The county replaced it with four smaller facilities, one of which, called the John J. Kane Regional Center - Scott Township, was built across Kane Boulevard from the old facility. The county closed the fire station that had served as the dispatch center for Bower Hill and the other fire departments in the area. This service was taken over by the Scott Township Police Department for Bower Hill and the other Scott Township departments, and by Carnegie Police for the other departments in the Chartiers Valley. Bower Hill was now the primary provider of fire and EMS protection at the new Kane facility. Members stepped up training in high-rise and multiple-occupancy facility firefighting. The first years of operation of the new Kane Regional Center saw a considerable increase in Bower Hill's call volume, with the department responding several times a week to service and reset the automatic alarm system from false or malicious alarms, once or twice a year to handle small fire incidents, and sometimes several times a day to transport critically ill residents to local hospitals.
The need to care for these patients and for the residents of the community in general led Bower Hill to begin providing Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulance service in June of 1982. At the time, the department was one of the first all-volunteer ALS services in Allegheny County, and had to overcome some serious opposition from both private and public sector EMS services in neighboring communities who used only career paramedics, and who strongly protested that the presence of volunteer ALS providers anywhere was a threat to their services and businesses. Doctor Clara Jean Ersöz, Medical Director and Vice President for Medical Affairs at St. Clair Memorial Hospital, disagreed with the naysayers, and gave Bower Hill’s paramedics medical command under her medical direction and St. Clair’s on-line medical control. Though ALS coverage was irregular at first, with only four paramedics on the roster, by 1990 the department was meeting state guidelines by providing ALS service in over 90% of the cases where it was indicated. Bower Hill became the ALS provider for all of Scott Township. The Dodge van ambulance was replaced in 1985 with a 1984 Ford cutaway modular van (“Type III” in the KKK-A-1822 spec) with a Yankee Coach “Patriot III” ambulance module, more conducive to the provision of ALS care.
The model by which the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department operated was changing. The community embraced the spirit of the 1980s, and that spirit was very businesslike. Firemen's Fairs were seen as frivolity, so they were discontinued. This decision was made easier when Our Lady of Grace Church began to hold a parish festival the week after the Bower Hill VFD fair, effectively destroying attendance at the fire department event. The residents expected the fire department to be a perfect supplier of service, and would tolerate no lapse. The department responded in the same spirit. Skill and professionalism became the hallmark of emergency operations. Equipment had to function perfectly. Non-emergency operations needed to be done according to business principles. The community expected no less.
By the 1990s, the face of the community was changing in another way. It was aging. Most of the residential development in Bower Hill happened between 1947 and 1960. The people who bought those houses had raised their children there, but now those children were going off to start families and find housing of their own. And the people who occupied the housing in Bower Hill had no intention of leaving; they were (and still are) quite happy to live in a safe, convenient, comfortable neighborhood with good services and reasonable taxes. Young people had to look elsewhere for homes. This had two obvious effects on the fire department. First, firefighting is mostly an occupation for the young. When the community doesn’t include many young people, volunteer firefighters are hard to come by. Second, the elderly require more emergency services than the young. Ambulance call volumes continued to grow every year, until it became obvious that they would soon exceed the capabilities of the decreasing trained volunteer pool.
Bower Hill wasn’t the only local department to face this problem; it was common throughout the South Hills of Allegheny County. Departments began to pool resources and enter into joint operations to continue to give the level of service the residents needed. Bower Hill joined forces with Glendale Hose Company No. 1 and incorporated Scott Township EMS (STEMS), owned equally by the two departments, and hired full time and part time EMTs and Paramedics to provide 24 hour-a-day ALS coverage. Each department provided an ambulance to STEMS and the durable medical equipment to stock it. Bower Hill provided its latest ambulance, a 1994 Ford “Type III” ambulance with a KJT Sentinel ambulance module. Members of the Bower Hill and Glendale departments were given first consideration for jobs as the initial employees, though application was open to anyone with the requisite certification.
The staffing problem was somewhat less acute with firefighting. While there were fewer young adults in the department, the overall membership was stable, and since the fire call volume remained low, it was adequate to the task. Equipment still needed to be replaced, and when it was, it was replaced with something more efficient and capable. The 1969 pumper, which had been extensively rebuilt in 1981, was replaced in 1992 with a new Sutphen Custom pumper of 1500 GPM capacity, and the 1973 mini-pumper and rescue that had also been heavily modified in 1985, was sold at the same time. In 1995, the department added a utility and squad vehicle, an unmodified Chevrolet 4-wheel drive crew-cab pickup truck that proved invaluable for many purposes. With this latest addition, the entire Bower Hill fleet was now diesel-powered and equipped with automatic transmissions. Firefighters’ protective gear was replaced as needed, and new PBI Aramid coats replaced the older Nomex/Kevlar models.
Allegheny County finally adopted 911 as the universal emergency phone number in the 1990s, and a new fire radio system followed. The old VHF Low Band Frequency of 33.76MHz frequently was jammed by electronic interference from neon lights and atmospheric “skip” signals, and was replaced with a new UHF system that incorporated dispatch and fireground radio channels. The dispatch center continued at the Scott Township Police Department, but was now operated as "Southwest Regional Dispatch." This operation would later be moved to the Allegheny County Communications Center in Pittsburgh, and the "Southwest Desk" was the first area in the 911 center to begin operations. A new county-wide numbering system for all fire stations was adopted. Stations were numbered alphabetically by municipality, beginning with Station 101 (Aleppo Township). Bower Hill became Station 255. The old number “4” was soon removed from all apparatus and replaced with the new “255” designation. Helmet shields soon followed. Older coats remained unchanged, but new replacements all sported the new number.
As the century came to a close, Bower Hill was quite a different place from what it had been 75 years earlier. Now an aging residential suburb full of “empty nesters,” the demands on the fire service were as new yet as constant as ever. No longer did the department support itself through Bingos and Firemen’s Fairs. Special events designed to bring people from outside the community and rental of the meeting hall took the place of the former events. The Annual Fund Drive, the Fire Prevention Week Raffle and the Good Friday Fish Fry became the most important sources of community event income for the department. The fire department was now seen as a public service provider, and it was expected to operate like a business or a government agency.
Fire emergencies remained relatively few, though each presented the possibility of an encounter with a disabled or elderly occupant, and firefighters trained accordingly. The site of the former elementary school was now occupied by a retirement residence, and fire prevention in the school was replaced by fire and injury prevention for the elderly. The old paint plant was long gone, replaced by an industrial park with warehouses and light manufacturing, some of which present special hazards. Trains ran on the railroads less frequently, but each still presented the same potential hazards. The site of the former Kane Hospital became a demolition and construction site, with the area occupied by the former dormitory building becoming the site of the new South Hills facility of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and much of the remainder of the property being prepared for development as the Providence Point retirement community, opened in 2008. The department continued to prepare to face these new challenges.
In 1998, another new pumper joined the fleet. It was a 1998 Pierce Dash 2000 model, with a 2000 GPM pump. This was the largest and most powerful engine the department had ever purchased. In 2002, the ambulance provided to STEMS was replaced with a new Ford Type III with a Medtec ambulance module. At the same time, Glendale replaced the unit they supplied to STEMS with an ambulance identical to the one purchased by Bower Hill. The Squad was replaced in 2005 with a slightly improved model, a Ford F350 pickup truck with a slide-out bed for easier access to equipment. This vehicle has one peculiarity. It is powered by a gasoline engine, something the department hadn't purchased in a vehicle other than a chief's command vehicle since 1984.
Though the firefighters of the department had long been trained in how to deal with the threats of violent terrorist action (the first record we have of training in counter-terrorism by the department is from 1957, but the records only go back to September of 1956), that training received more focus after September 11, 2001. The Scott Township Emergency Management Office conducted training sessions for residents as well as emergency service responders in how to deal with all types of natural and man-made threats. Though target hazards in the Bower Hill area are relatively few, any such incident anywhere in Southwestern Pennsylvania will require massive response capabilities, not unlike those required for a major natural disaster. This readiness was put to the test on September 17, 2004 and subsequent days, when record-breaking rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan caused record-breaking flooding of Chartiers Creek and its tributaries that had not flooded since the remnants of Hurricane Agnes passed through in June of 1972. Though the Bower Hill area sustained relatively minor damage, nearby Bridgeville, Heidelberg and Carnegie Boroughs saw major destruction. Bower Hill responded to assist its neighbors, and remains ready to respond to any hazard.
In 2004, Bower Hill once again lost its fire chief to cancer, when Ron Cramer died on April 29th. As Bob Berdnik did in 1974, Assistant Chief Gary Sawicki filled the role competently and capably.
Though the department no longer directly provided Emergency Medical Service, through its joint ownership of Scott Township EMS with Glendale Hose Company No. 1, it remained very connected to EMS operations. In 2006, the two departments jointly purchased two new ambulances for STEMS.
The same year, Bower Hill renovated the fire station for greater energy efficiency. The department is landlocked by Vanadium Road and the steep hillside behind the building. The current building was not designed for energy efficiency, and the door openings and front setback are marginal at best for safe operations. A better solution would have been to relocate the station. The county began plans to sell the property bordered by Green Commons Drive, Vanadium Road and Kane Boulevard, called "Kane Grass" by long-time residents, and the department expressed interest. Ultimately these efforts would prove fruitless. The best current solution was to renovate the building to the extent possible to reduce energy costs, and await a better opportunity.
Also in 2006, the department convened the apparatus planning committee to investigate replacement of the 1977 American La France engine that would turn 30 years old the next year.
Scott Township's three fire departments, Bower Hill, Glendale and East Carnegie have long worked well together. The departments share a common mission and work together to carry it out with mutual respect and cooperation. In 2007, that cooperation got even closer as East Carnegie joined in supporting Scott Township EMS. The township commissioners passed an ordinance designating STEMS as the sole 911 EMS provider for the township. STEMS celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2007. The departments also began to hold a joint "Cash Bash" fundraiser to benefit all three departments. In 2009, the three departments and the jointly-owned Scott Township EMS officially united in the Scott Township Fire District. This organization provides coordination and oversight in operational matters and provides a joint administrative structure for the departments.
At Bower Hill, the department took delivery of a new command vehicle in 2007, and a new pumper to replace the 30-year old American LaFrance engine arrived in May of 2008. The department, with the support of the township, continues to make every effort to improve the community's ISO (Insurance Service Organization) rating. This effort was successful in 2013, when Scott Township's fire protection rating from ISO improved from Class 5 to Class 3. The 1992 Sutphen pumper was replaced with a new Pierce pumper in 2013. The new pumper is equipped with a compressed air foam system (CAFS) for more efficient firefighting.
In an effort to more effectively use the resources of the department, the Memorial Hall was closed for rental in 2014. The space is being renovated for department use.
Today, Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department is a strong and stable firefighting and emergency response force. For the first time in many years, the Bower Hill community has begun to to grow, and with it has come new young members. The new Providence Point development added over 200 new residents to the community, and many of these residents came from within the community, freeing up housing for young families. Though the age of the average firefighter still remains somewhat greater than in the past, as the people who turned Bower Hill from a mining and mill town to a suburb now move off to Providence Point and the other retirement communities springing up in and around the area, these young families are beginning to find what their grandparents found: This is a good place to live. And as it has since 1924, the fire department remains at the heart of the community as a place to serve.