When Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department was chartered in 1924, the Scott Township Board of Commissioners secured a building on Montgomery Avenue to serve as the department's station. It was a two-story, wood framed, wood sheathed structure with a single garage. This necessarily limited the department to having a single vehicle. When Montgomery Avenue was finally paved in 1929, the street was widened, and the level of the street was lowered by about four feet, and the former gentle grade pulling out of the station became a steep drop. The International Chemical and Hose Car could handle this, but when the new White pumper arrived in 1944, the garage opening proved to be too low and the truck's angle of attack too shallow to back into the garage easily. The firemen built wooden ramps that had to be placed from the garage to well out into the street so the engine could get into the garage. About this time, serious discussion began about finding more suitable quarters. A search began in earnest in December of 1950, as the building continued to deteriorate structurally.
A suitable piece of property was located very nearby. At the intersection of Vanadium Road and Main Street (formerly Gamble Street) was a level lot that had been a strip mine. The coal had all been removed, and the land was vacant. The state highway department had relocated Main Street through part of the property, but there was enough land left for an adequate fire station.
Mr. Charles Fleck owned the property, and he proposed a trade of land. The department got the vacant lot at 161 Vanadium Road, and Mr. Fleck got the lot and building on Montgomery Avenue.
In December of 1952 the Ladies Auxiliary met, and Carmella Choura made a motion to give the firemen a check for $3,500.00 for the down payment on the new building to be constructed on the Vanadium Road site. That payment was made on July 31, 1953. The building included two bays for apparatus (with one large garage door), a kitchen, a rest room and a boiler room.
In 1954, the new building was occupied by one engine and one ambulance. By 1957, the additions of a Jeep rescue truck and a new pumper made the recently spacious quarters seem cramped. This situation persistedfor another decade.
During this time, beginning in 1964, the department tried to get Allegheny County to donate some unoccupied land from the Kane Hospital property, on what locals called "Kane Grass," as a way to move the department closer to the center of the service area and to provide room for future expansion. Three potential sites were identified. The first was at the crest of the hill on Kane Boulevard, next to the new Our Lady of Grace Church building, where the Bower Hill Historical Marker stands today. The second was at the southwest corner of the intersection of Kane Boulevard and Institution Avenue (known today as Green Commons Drive), and the third was at Vanadium Road and Institution Avenue. These requests were made repeatedly for three years, but the county took no action, neither approving nor rejecting them. It became obvious to the department that the county was likely to offer no assistance, so it made plans to do what it could, to the extent possible, on the existing grounds.
One idea was to remove the existing kitchen and rest room, and build a second floor addition to house them and an office and meeting hall, and store the apparatus two-deep in the garage bays. Studies showed that this was possible, but it would be quite expensive, and the two-deep garages would still be cramped. Meanwhile, Mr. Charles Kuna, a department member, owned the long-abandoned house and property next door to the station at 169 Vanadium Road. He donated this land to the department, providing room for at least some horizontal expansion.
In 1967, a two-bay addition on the Main Street side of the building solved the department's space problem, at least temporarily. A new, larger kitchen was added, and the old kitchen became an office. A second rest room was added. Now, with suitable rest room facilities for men and women, the building could be used for Bingo and other events. A half-length storage bay was added to accommodate the tables and chairs used at Bingo, and the parking lot was relocated to the old Kuna property.
In 1977 when another new engine joined the fleet, the storage bay was extended to house it. This addition was built entirely by department members, led by Joe Besso, Bob Berdnik, Don Ziegler and Dave Kemmerer.
The frigid winters of the late 1970s underscored the need for a social hall that didn't require pulling the vehicles outside for events. A second story addition was added in 1980, and this became a popular spot for dances and fundraisers, as well as weekly Bingo. The downstairs kitchen was converted into a day room for the firefighters. This was renovated and expanded in 2000. Fiberglass garage doors with automatic openers replaced the rope-and-pulley wooden ones in the 1990s. At the same time, the hall was renovated to be fully ADA compliant, with an elevator and a new, wider entrance area and accessible rest rooms. In 2006, the garage bay doors, garage floor, garage ceiling tiles, and windows, heating and cooling systems throughout the building were replaced with energy-efficient components in an effort to decrease escalating utility costs. This has proven to be effective.
Though these measures reduced utility costs, the department had outgrown its quarters. Fire apparatus has grown much longer, taller and wider since 1967, and clearances around the doors are very tight - about one and a half inches on each side of the vehicle and three inches above it for the full-size engines - even after two of the doors were widened to accommodate today's larger fire vehicles. This makes backing the vehicles into the garages a challenge that few motorists would care to attempt. At the same time, the shallow setback from the road means that traffic on Vanadium Road must be stopped whenever a fire vehicle backs into the garage. In 1953, when the station was built, this was not much of a problem. Today, it is both inconvenient to motorists and hazardous to firefighters, since Vanadium Road is the major access route from the Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair areas to Interstate Route 79. All too frequently, impatient motorists will attempt to pass in front of or even behind the fire vehicles when they are backing into the station, creating an accident and injury hazard. When firefighters attempt to control the traffic, they are ignored, and sometimes even threatened by these motorists.
The department considered the option of relocating to another space somewhere in the service area, preferably somewhere near its center. As was the case in 1964, it approached Allegheny County about the possibility of acquiring some of the still-unoccupied Kane Grass. Two of sites from the 1964 request were still open at the time. In early 2007, this property was slated for sale, and the department pursued a partnership with other local community groups to purchase it for mutual use for the benefit of the community. However the residents of the surrounding area protested to the township, and the other agencies pulled their support. Faced with insufficient financial resources to pursue the project alone, and with the opposition of the residents it is dedicated to serve, Bower Hill VFD abandoned its efforts to relocate the station. The property was sold to developers, and the Laurelwood plan was built on the site.
The department will continue to do the best it can with its limited facilities to provide the highest possible level of service to the community while maintaining the safety of its firefighters. The existing building now limits the specifications of the fire apparatus. When BHVFD was seeking a new engine in 2012, it found that several manufacturers could not build a fire engine small enough to fit in the station. In creating the specifications in 2013 for a utility vehicle to replace the 1998 engine, the committee found that there are very few chassis choices that are narrow enough to fit through the station's doors. The department has consulted with architects, and has found that the door openings cannot be enlarged in width or height. The situation is similar to that faced by Bower Hill in 1950, and the department will continue to seek a reasonable solution.
Meanwhile the rental of the hall has imposed some difficulties for the department, and has become a limitation rather than an asset. In 2014, the hall will be closed for rentals, and the space will be renovated for department use. As of February 5, 2014, no further rental bookings will be made, though existing bookings will be honored.