Swissvale’s Volunteer, Paid Fire Departments Consolidate at New Station

William McCloskey

By William McCloskey –

It’s been a long time coming and this month Swissvale’s unusual combined professional and volunteer fire companies consolidate under one roof with the dedication of a brand-new fire station at Monongahela Avenue and Irvine Street.

At the same time, the firefighters will roll out their new and much-needed Spartan ERV 103-foot aerial ladder truck. The new unit replaces Swissvale’s principal fire rig, a Seagrave ladder truck, that is 37 years old and already was 21 years old when the borough bought it used.

Sept. 29 is the planned date for both the fire station and fire truck inaugurals. Fire-related festivities in Swissvale will continue Oct. 7 with a fire prevention open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

When talking about firefighters in Swissvale, it’s important to not confuse “volunteer” with “amateur.” The Swissvale Volunteer Fire Co. has a long, rich history of accomplishment. Its members are some of the most dedicated and talented to be found—it’s just that they don’t do it for a living.

Swissvale is one of the few communities in Allegheny County served by a combination paid-volunteer fire department. The combined Swissvale companies respond to about 1,000 emergency medical calls and 500 fire calls annually.

The design of the new fire station, located at the former Strathers Funeral Home at 7400 Irvine St., cleverly retained and remodeled the old funeral home to create office and administrative space for the consolidated fire departments. Currently, the borough’s paid staff operates out of the borough building on Roslyn Street and the volunteers have their own station at 7419 Washington Ave.

Financing for the new facility comes through a package of government grants, proceeds from the sale by the volunteer group of their existing station and low-interest loans.

The new aerial ladder truck also was a smooth deal. Swissvale saved nearly $150,000 off the cost of a brand-new, custom-built truck by purchasing a manufacturer’s demonstration vehicle. The Swissvale truck had a price of $760,000, and the purchase was made possible by a $722,000 federal grant. The borough must kick in 5 percent, or $38,000.

The aerial truck especially is important for Swissvale because of its hills, narrow streets and closely packed structures. The borough is compact, covering about 1.3 square miles and home to about 9,000 residents. Vertically, there is an elevation change of several hundred feet between areas like Whipple Street and Columbia Avenue.

The versatile new ladder truck can improve rescue capabilities for extricating fire victims from upper-story situations. And, because fire burns upward, its ability to deliver water and flame suppressants from above the fire is a plus for limiting damage.

Firefighting in Swissvale has a grand and noble tradition. The volunteer fire company dates back to 1903, just after the borough was established. The paid department was established in 1907. Today, the majority of Swissvale’s firefighters also are trained as medical first responders, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Borough Fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm, a 29-year veteran who got his start with the volunteer fire company, became borough fire chief in January 2010. He’s been the spark plug for the entire consolidation-building campaign and also wrote the successful grant application for the aerial truck.

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The chief oversees compliance with the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code. All building permits are issued by the fire department. The fire chief also serves as the borough’s zoning officer and ensures compliance with borough zoning ordinances. Additionally, the fire department enforces the borough’s occupancy permit ordinance.

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