the way we were IX

FIGHTING FIRE

Elected officials began discussing fire protection almost as soon as the township was founded in 1912. A committee was formed to talk with South Pittsburgh Water Company about installing fire hydrants. Mt. Lebanon Garage Company offered to store a fire truck at its Washington Road shop for $10 a month and commissioners advertised for a motor driven, 60-gallon chemical truck with 250 feet of chemical hose, 750 feet of standard fire hose and provisions for storing equipment. But they took no action.

It took a 1915 blaze that destroyed a Shady Avenue house to prompt action. That March, Commissioner Frank W. Cooke moved to purchase a fire engine, not to exceed $500. On May 10, Mt. Lebanon purchased a chemical tank from Pittsburgh Fire Extinguisher Company for $486. By summer’s end, the community had 11 hydrants. The equipment was the best to be had for the price but provided little protection, as evidenced by a 1917 report from the Association of Fire Underwriters. Based on an inspection of the firefighting apparatus, Mt. Lebanon received no insurance credit on that basis.
In November 1917, Mt. Lebanon purchased a damaged Marmon 6 automobile for $300 and rebuilt it into a fire truck. The truck was in service on June 1, 1918 when the Mt. Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department was formed. The first fire station, at 520 Washington Road, is now the site of the Lebanon House Apartments.

In early 1920, Mt. Lebanon reorganized the 19-member department, naming William Phillips, a municipal maintenance and code enforcement employee who had chaired the volunteer company, its first chief. Phillips, the department’s first paid employee, received $1 per hour to keep the equipment in shape. Volunteers received $1.50 an hour for the time they spent actually fighting fires, but in 1924—perhaps as an incentive to arrive early—a commission ordinance limited the payment to only six members per fire.

Phillips worked to raise the department’s profile and convince the public to make firefighting a financial priority. In 1922, he persuaded the commission to use surplus funds from an 8-mill tax levy to purchase a new fire truck. Volunteers also pitched in, holding summer street carnivals, a firemen’s ball, a banquet and other fundraisers. In September 1922, the commission authorized a down payment of $3,900 on a 1923 American LaFrance fire engine—Mt. Lebanon’s first “real” fire truck.

James Wood, left, and David Hasley were Mt. Lebanon’s first firefighters.

In 1929, with work beginning on the new municipal building, the Commission approved the hiring of two paid firemen—James Wood, who transferred from police, became the new chief at a salary of $160 per month. David Hasley was named assistant fire chief at $150 per month. By 1938, the department consisted of Chief Wood, Assistant Chief George Prince and firefighters Hasley and Raymond Goettel, who would later become Mt. Lebanon’s longest-serving fire chief.

On April 21, 1930, an ordinance joined the commands of the fire and police department by establishing the department of public safety, headed by Chief Charles Baldwin.

By 1938, volunteers numbered 32, and the department was awaiting arrival of its fourth truck, purchased once again from American LaFrance, for $16,400. The state-of-the-art pumper carried a 1,250-gallon main tank, with a booster tank of 150 gallons, and could put out as much as 1,000 gallons per minute. From the firemen’s point of view, however, the most significant improvements were an enclosed cab and the fact that nine men could ride inside the truck. An effusive Pittsburgh Press story from February 23, 1938 describes the new piece:

“Imagine nine rubber-clad firemen lolling comfortably in a sedan as they dash around corners on two wheels going to a fire instead of clinging wildly on the running boards…the nine comfortably-riding firemen will not be sissies or pantywaists, but the nine most alert, quickest-to-get-there members of the Mt. Lebanon department…”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed, the community began building fallout shelters. William O’Mara of St. Bernard Church, Firefighter James Wood Jr., and Donald Simpson of the Army Corps of Engineers, review a plan.

In the 1950s, global tensions increased the nation’s fears of nuclear holocaust. In 1953, John Herrmann, Mt. Lebanon’s chief of civil defense, held alerts monthly, with one drill involving more than 300 civil defense volunteers. The fire department took an active part in the preparedness drills, placing high-powered sirens around town and consulting with school and municipal officials about the best locations for public fallout shelters.

Under Chief Ray Goettel, the department began to emphasize fire prevention and community outreach. In partnership with the schools, the department sponsored fire prevention essay contests, visited classrooms and hosted visits to the fire station. Goettel grew the department—by 1960 he was overseeing nine paid firemen and 42 volunteers. When Steve Walther took over as chief in 1972, the department was running out of space in the municipal building, and as fire trucks and equipment got larger and the number of paid firemen expanded to 16, it would only get worse. Walther, who was instrumental in developing and implementing Mt. Lebanon’s first building and fire prevention code, began lobbying for more space, but it was his successor, Steve Darcangelo, that made it his mission. In the late 1990s, after decades of lobbying by the fire and police chiefs, Mt. Lebanon Commissioners approved a new, state-of-the-art public safety facility that would provide room for modern equipment, effective maintenance and on-site training. The Center at 555 Washington Road opened in September 2003. In 2010, Fire Chief Nick Sohyda began the rigorous two-year process of accreditation through the Commission on Fire Service Accreditation International; the preeminent status was granted.

POLICING THE STREETS
Mt. Lebanon Police Officer John Kauper and his dog pose outside the police garage in 1927.

Like the fire department, Mt. Lebanon’s police department has evolved from reactive to proactive.

Mt. Lebanon’s first police chief, Charles Baldwin, was appointed in July 1922 to oversee a force of seven officers. William Kane succeeded him in January 1931 and remained in the post nine years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a local policeman would have known nearly everybody in town by name, and even as Mt. Lebanon grew, the department retained its small-town, friendly posture. Day-to-day policing seldom involved much high drama—moving violations, security at high school football games and traffic control on Sunday mornings took up a lot of the officers’ time.

Traffic was a large part of police work in Mt. Lebanon from the beginning. In 1912, one of the first actions of the founding fathers was to place speed limit signs throughout the town, even though the town had fewer than 10 cars. In the mid 1920s, officers began patrolling the community on Harley Davidson motorcycles.

By 1950, under chief Charles Senn, the police force consisted of 27 officers. Routine patrol consisted of settling family fights, rattling doorknobs in the business districts, keeping an eye on strangers and, prior to the formation of Medical Rescue Team South Authority in 1976, ambulance calls. In 1951, 90 percent of arrests in Mt. Lebanon were for violations of the motor vehicle code. A local businessman spotted weaving across the center line after a few too many might expect no more than a scolding and a police escort home.

One of the police department’s more exciting arrests was the 1952 pursuit of ex-convict John Cehovsky, whcih ended in Bridgeville where he was apprehended.

Occasionally, however, the peace was broken. In January 1952, Mt. Lebanon Police officers exchanged gunfire as they pursued ex-convict John Cehovsky—who was wanted on a parole violation after serving 10 years in Oregon for a kidnapping conviction—(he was finally apprehended in Bridgeville). In 1959, officers from Mt. Lebanon, Dormont, Castle Shannon, Allegheny County, the state police and the FBI worked together to apprehend “The Chicken Hill Bandits, two men who had robbed the People’s First National Bank in Hays, near Homestead. Mt. Lebanon officers pursued the pair, cornering them on Chicken Hill in Green Tree, where a two-hour shootout ensued in which two city police offers were seriously wounded. United Artists later filmed a reenactment for “Lawbreakers,” a real-life NBC police drama, with roles played by officers who had taken part in the events.

In July 1969, Geissinger took over from Kunkle and ran the department until April 1972, when he retired and David Varrelman from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was hired. Varrelman, who was chief nearly 18 years, combined police/fire emergency dispatch into a single unit—one of the first such centers in the country. When Varrelman left in July 1990, he was succeeded by Frank Brown, who expanded the field training program and instituted more stringent training requirements for supervisors and officers in a variety of areas, including terrorist response, hostage negotiation and locating missing children.

Celebrating the 2003 opening of the community’s new public safety building are forner Police Chief Tom Ogden (left), former Fire Chief Steve Darcangelo and an assortment of firefighters and police officers.

Tom Ogden, who became chief in 1998, worked to promote closer communication among all of Mt. Lebanon’s emergency responders and formed a Special Response Team (SRT) to respond to catastrophic incidents. Both policies paid off early. On April 28, 2000, the fire department responded to a house fire on Elm Spring Road in Virginia Manor. Arriving at the scene, firefighters found the body of gunshot victim Anita Gordon. Ogden was assisting Scott Township police at a shooting when the call came in. At the time, no one knew it was the same gunman—34-year-old Richard Baumhammers, Gordon’s next-door neighbor—who would go on to shoot three more people before being apprehended in Aliquippa. He is on death row.

In 2003, after years of discussion over need and cost, a new public safety building on Washington Road was dedicated. In 2009, after Ogden retired, Coleman McDonough, a former deputy commander with the Pennsylvania State Police, was hired and continues in that role today.

— mjackson@mtlebanon.org