Personal Testimonies

Monica Shields, Peebles Volunteer Fire Company

I was new to McCandless and the Pittsburgh area 15 years ago. I was a young working adult, who was also going back to school to complete my degree. I moved to the area for work and school, but still felt something was lacking. I didn't know anyone in the area and decided to do something to meet people.

My parents demonstrated a strong tie to community involvement, so when I saw a blurb in the Town Crier calling for community residents to "Step Up" and join the fire departments, I thought, "Why not!? I could stuff some envelopes or something." Little did I know of the journey I would embark on.

When I first joined, I watched the children of a few other members when there was an emergency call. Then I started helping out by taking pictures and video during training, so the firefighters could critique their trainings and learn from them. One day at a training for vehicle rescue, the chief said, "You and Jay are about the same height. Try his gear on and check this out." I put on turnout gear for the first time and learned how to operate the Jaws of Life. That was awesome!

Shortly thereafter, I had a locker and turnout gear of my own. I went to the academy for the class that every firefighter starts out with, Essentials of Firefighting. Concurrently, I joined a couple of other members to get certified as a diver. I've been involved in fire prevention, membership recruitment and retention, and have served as an administration officer, in addition to being an active firefighter and diver during my tenure at Peebles Volunteer Fire Company. Additionally, I've parlayed my knowledge about the fire service and education into a role as an instructor.

Through the fire company, my husband and I met. He has been a volunteer at Peebles for about 13 years now. We have been married for 12 of those years. We have two young boys at home that can't wait to be firefighters, too. For now, they help with cleaning the station and making snow cones at Community Day.

Some say this is a hobby. If the safety of the individuals who live, work, or visit our community weren't part of the stakes, I would agree. This can be tons of fun. However, being a community servant isn't a distraction or just the pursuit of a pastime. Volunteers do a lot of serious work to keep the community safe.

Firefighters are some of the most broadly educated people you will encounter. Routinely we learn about architecture, building construction, chemistry, meteorology, physics, and engineering. Technology, public relations, marketing, and public education are also issues that we address.

I've gained so much from answering that little blurb: a husband, extended family and friends, an extension of my career, and a broad knowledge base. If one of the above areas falls in your purview, consider lending a hand at your closest station. Your world will expand-mine did!"

Dan Thomas, Peebles Volunteer Fire Company

I joined the fire services for two reasons. My son, Will, was born in January of 2001, which of course was right before the attacks of 9/11. I thought because of the events of 9/11 and having a newly born son, it would be good to do something that would help. The fire services really is a brotherhood.

In addition, you have help when you move, when your car breaks down, and even when you need a babysitter.

Joining the fire services was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Robert A. Jeke, Peebles Volunteer Fire Company

In May of 1980, while I was a junior at North Allegheny High School, I attended a seminar about being a volunteer firefighter at the school with 2 other friends that I grew up with. The three of us, who were only 16 at the time, decided to join Highland Fire Department. It was a life-changing experience that I have fallen in love with since.

I could not even think of anything else that gives me such satisfaction than helping my fellow town residents in the time of need.

Currently, I am the Fire Chief of Peebles Fire Company and attribute my early experience, training, and love for volunteering to the early days back in 1980.

Cody Monper, Highland Volunteer Fire Department

I am part of a long line of firefighters. Being a firefighter has been part of my family for generations. I grew up at the fire station and have looked up to my dad and uncles ever since I can remember. Many kids have the childhood dream to become a professional athlete, superhero, etc. Mine was to become a fireman, and to live out that childhood dream is one of the greatest feelings. Now kids look up to me just like I looked up to my family.

Steve Wehrspann, Highland Volunteer Fire Department

I moved into McCandless in late 2003 from Ithaca, New York. While living in Ithaca and working at Cornell University, I became a resident "bunker" firefighter at the Ithaca Fire Department. A bunker is an individual who lives in the fire station free of charge in exchange for providing approximately 100 hours a month of emergency response firefighting support to the career staff members of the Ithaca Fire Department.

When I purchased my house near Highland Station 186 in McCandless, I assumed that all fire departments around the Pittsburgh area were career fire departments as well. After driving by the Highland Fire Department on a daily basis for over 2 months, I noticed that I rarely saw people at the station during the day. Then, on a Tuesday night, as I was driving by, I happened to see the sign on the Highland Road side of the fire station that said "Highland Volunteer Fire Department" at the same time I saw several individuals in front of the station. I decided to stop and ask one of the individuals if they were a volunteer department and if they were looking for new members. The response I got was, "We are always looking for new members." He invited me in to talk about what it is like to be a volunteer in McCandless and gave me an application. At that moment, I knew this would be a great way for me to get involved with the community I now called home.

I was fortunate to have had previous firefighting experience before joining Highland Volunteer Fire Department. However, I have witnessed firsthand over the past 11 years of my membership at Highland, many new members who are also dedicated to giving back to their community, learn the skills necessary to be a firefighter in the town of McCandless.

Mardie Baldo, Highland Volunteer Fire Department

At age 39, in 1998, after wanting to become a firefighter since the late 1970s, I went to the Allegheny County Fire Academy in North Park. I had recently remarried, and my new husband had been a firefighter since 1966. I had mentioned to him many times that I had always wanted to be a firefighter, but back in the 1970s in this area, women were not permitted. I lived in Cranberry Township at the time. I was welcome to join the Ladies Auxiliary, but firefighting was out of the question. So I went on with my life, raised my son, put myself through nursing school, and worked as a nurse consultant. I had loved watching Emergency!, with Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto, like many people in my age group. So my new husband, Jim, who moved to Pittsburgh to marry me, said, "If you have always wanted to become a firefighter, what's stopping you? I will help you and support you all I can."

With his support, I went to fire school and got the highest score on the test in my class. I was not just the oldest female in the class, but the oldest student in the class. However, I was determined to succeed. Shortly after finishing at the fire academy, we joined Highland Volunteer Fire Department. I have had the opportunity to help my community in many ways.

Fighting fires is just a part of what we do. I really enjoy working with the public and helping teach fire prevention classes with our Fire Safety trailer to the children, teachers, and families in the community. I was able to help out with the smoke detector program we recently did with the aid of a federal grant. My husband passed away in January 2012. I am no longer fighting fires, but still assist the department with public service events. I am very happy I made the choice to pursue a lifelong dream. The satisfaction you get from helping others far outweighs the demands on your time. I have been at Highland VFD for over 15 years.

Gregory Quatchak, Ingomar Volunteer Fire Company

I grew up on a dead-end street in Ingomar. My father was a member of the Ingomar Volunteer Fire Company, as were several other dads on the street. When the fire siren went off, all of the dads would wait on the street in front of their homes for the dad who lived at the top of the street to drive down the street and pick them up to take them to the fire station. (Incidentally, the "dad at the top of the street" was Councilman Gerry Aufman!). As a child, I remember the firemen's picnic being one of the highlights of the summer, and the big pumper truck making the rounds to the swimming pools on our street to fill them each year. Growing up in Ingomar, the fire company was a part of community life and I couldn't wait to join. I joined the fire department on my 17th birthday and just completed my 40th year of service.

Mark F. Torisky, Ingomar Volunteer Fire Company

Be a firefighter! It was one of the farthest things from my mind. My fire chief at work asked me if I would like to join the Fire Department. I thought about it and said "yes." I wanted to be more involved in the community because I was a transplant (from across the river) and trying to fit in. I realized later, my fire service would also be giving back to the community. We all have a desire to belong, to give of oneself and care for one another, to help our fellow man, to help our neighbor. I've been a firefighter for 25 years.

While a GI in Vietnam, I received a Pennsylvania state flag and a letter from my State Rep. At the bottom of the letter was a quote:

"I shall pass this way but once; whatever good I may do, may I not defer from it, for I shall pass this way but once." -Benjamin Franklin

And I will pass this way but once. Be safe out there!