By Jonathan Weaver
“There’s been people around that tried to do away with us, sell our truck, try to shut us down, cut our funding (but) we stayed strong, pulled together and it actually made us better, tougher, and stronger than ever before – and we’re going to continue to be that way.
“We had a lot of hurdles in front of us, and we jumped every one of them.”
Kittanning Hose Company #1 Fire Chief Gene Stephens and local firefighters will continue to celebrate overcoming those obstacles and the past 125 years of volunteer service to the community with a dinner Saturday night at the St. Mary’s Parish Hall.
Members and non-active members, along with their spouses or girlfriends, and local dignitaries –including State Rep. Jeff Pyle, Senator Don White and members of Kittanning Borough Council – have all been invited.
Currently about 100 have RSVP’d, according to Fire Department President Jerry Shuster, and citations from the U.S. Senate, Congress and House of Representatives, as well as the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives have been issued.
“It’s a celebration of the company,” Shuster said.
Chief Stephens joined the fire department when he was 18. Besides his father – former fire chief Carl “Skeets” – and uncles, William “Abe” and Eugene “Chuck,” Stephens had brothers part of the department before they moved and currently has two cousins alongside him as a firefighter.
“I’ve been around the organization as long as I’ve been knee-high to a grasshopper, working carnivals, bingos and other functions like that with my father,” Stephens said.
Many members of the fire company share in those family traditions – including Shuster (a third-generation firefighter celebrating 51 years in the company with son, Patrick, who is also a firefighter) and Assistant Chief Kevin Kline (a firefighter who saves lives alongside his daughter, Kendra, father – Kittanning Hose Company #4 Fire Chief and Borough Fire Marshal Earl “Buzz” Kline, brothers –including Kittanning Hose Company #6 Fire Chief Scott Kline and cousins.
“It’s a family business,” Kline said. “She loves it – when school and work don’t get in the way, she’s very active.”
Kline has volunteered with Hose Company #1 a combined 17 years at Hose Company #1 and was a certified paramedic with Kittanning #6 for 10 years.
About 26 active members make up Hose Company #1– and officers are currently reviewing more applications. Applications are always accepted – even from those who want to do more than fight fires.
Even two children that are sons of firefighters – Fire Department Treasurer Earl Kline’s son, Colin, and Stephens’ son, Sye, – are awaiting their turn to be more involved.
Hose Company #1 firefighters – which have responded to about 120 emergency calls (from fire alarms and vehicle accidents to elevator high-rise problems and, of course, fires – in 2014) protect residents from South Water Street to Union Avenue, but assist with the other Kittanning fire departments on fire calls and also respond to incidents in Applewold, West Kittanning, Ford City, East Franklin and Worthington.
Usually with full support, Chief Stephens said.
“I’m real happy with the members of this fire department because when the whistle blows, I can probably put 15-20 guys on the street,” Chief Stephens said.
A certified non-profit organization, firefighters have sponsored dances and street fairs in the past to the current-Waves of Thunder motorcycle show and trout derby.
“We wouldn’t be in existence if it hadn’t been for the support of the community,” Shuster said. “You don’t get to be 125 years old if you haven’t done something that merits that support.”
The first company fire station sat along an extension of Mulberry Street where Balcony Towers now sits until Kittanning Borough purchased the former-Presbyterian Church in the early 1900’s with a $5,000 bond. Firefighters spent $10,000 to renovate the building.
“It was the happenin` spot back in the day – the only place big enough at that time to hold events like that,” Stephens said. “People from out of town would come in to square dance – thousands of people were in that structure.”
The fire station – which was demolished in 2013 to make way for an extension to AAAA Tire next door – was used 100 years – until 2001 – when the current structure was completed.
Proceeds from those fundraisers and a gun bash – held November 1 at the West Kittanning Fire Hall – set aside money for turnout gear (costing approximately $2,500 each firefighter) and the dreams of a new aerial truck.
Safety Officer Matt Graham started as a junior firefighter in April 2003, but has been around the firehouse since he was five years old with stepfather George Schreckengost – also a firefighter. He can be seen at the fire hall sometimes until 4AM on the weekends – even if just for the comradery.
“I’ve learned a lot from Gene and George,” Graham said.
Fourth Ward Councilman and Hose Company #4 Firefighter Andy Peters congratulated the firefighters across town. Peters has been a firefighter about a dozen years
“It’s a wonderful thing – it’s an accomplishment to be in service that long,” Peters said.