The Heidelberg Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) was established on June 13, 1909. Mr. Phillip Hillen was the chairmen of the first meeting, and with sixteen other Heidelberg residents in attendance, he proclaimed, “This meeting was called for the purpose of establishing a new fire department in The Borough of Heidelberg.” Those words marked the start of over 100 years of rich history. The HVFD has seen many changes throughout its existence, but our mission has never wavered: Neighbors helping neighbors.
Initially, the HVFD was responsible for providing fire protection to not only the residents of Heidelberg, but also a large coal mine (which was also the primary employer of most of the men in the community). Without the “luxuries” modern fire departments rely on (mainly fire hydrants and fire trucks, the department utilized a “bucket brigade”. To support the brigade, the initial equipment inventory at the HVFD was a stack of metal buckets and 12 fire helmets. Two years after it’s founding, the department received its first piece of apparatus, a hose cart. This cart was pulled to the fire scene by the fire fighters. In 1927, with financial support from the Bowman Steel Company, the department was able to purchase a 1927 American LaFrance motorized pumper. The new fire truck was stored in the rear of the Borough Building located on East Railroad St.
During the 1930’s the Great Depression hit Heidelberg hard. To help, the members of HVFD would donate funds to one firemen’s family each year so he could provide Christmas gifts to his children. In 1934 the department faced its largest challenge to date when multiple large underground fuel storage tanks exploded near Bowman Steel. The fire raged for weeks and assistance was requested from fire departments as far away as McKees Rocks.
In 1947, the HVFD purchased one of the first post-World War II fire trucks made available. The 1947 International fire engine was considered state-of-the-art, and has been the pride of our department ever since. The department, and Heidelberg, continued to grow, and in February 1970, the HVFD established a committee to research the construction of a new fire station. The department broke ground at our current location in May 1971, and the new station was completed and operational in March 1972. The station included a four-bay engine garage, a spacious social hall, and a fully functional kitchen. The social hall became a popular event location, and many Heidelberg residents have fond memories of events hosted in the hall.
December 7, 2002 was the saddest day in our department’s history. At 7:40 a.m., the HVFD was alerted for a working structure fire at L. Thomas Towing, a large building approximately a half-block long in Heidelberg. Chief Henry James Wissel left his home (located across from L. Thomas towing) and immediately requested a second alarm, because the structure was well involved and endangering adjacent buildings. A third alarm was requested upon the arrival of 170 Engine. As the additional units were responding, a message was broadcast for a firefighter down in the street. The firefighter down was Chief Wissel, or “HJ”. The EMS crews on scene quickly attended to the Chief, and transported him to St. Clair Hospital were he had passed. Chief Wissel was laid to rest with full firefighter honors. Over 500 firefighters from 150 fire companies came to pay their respects. In March of 2003 H.J. Wissel was honored for his sacrifice at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. HJ Wissel was a 38 year member of HVFD and one of the greatest firefighters our department has ever had the privilege of calling our own. His legacy lives on through the revitalization of our department.
Ninety-five years of work was washed away in September of 2004 as flood waters from hurricane Ivan rose to levels not scene in over 50 years. The HVFD building located on First St. is over 600 feet from the banks of Chartiers Creek. Water levels inside the building were over 7 feet high and destroyed everything in their path. HVFD members were able to remove all the vehicles and most of the firefighter’s protective equipment. The aftermath of the flood was devastating with structural damage to the building exceeding $750,000. Just as members were unsure of the future of the department, a life time member thought he remembered that the insurance agent included flood coverage in the department policy over 30 years prior. The member was correct, and the policy provided the funds to bring the department back to full operational status. During the renovations, the HVFD operated out of makeshift fire station that consisted of two tents and a mobile office trailer in the parking lot behind the building. After 12 months, the department moved into the newly renovated station in June 2005. The improved building is on the same footprint of the original station, but was upgraded to include an all-brick exterior, new kitchen facilities, state of the art heating and air conditioning systems, an emergency generator, wireless internet access, and a beautiful social hall with a new layout.
The department currently has 54 members, of which 22 are lifetime members. The department’s members provide primary fire protection and BLS ambulance service to the residents of Heidelberg and assist neighboring municipalities through mutual aid agreements. Our department has received over $400,000 in state and federal grants since 2006. These funds have been used to replace aging personnel protective equipment, update the department’s communication equipment, and purchase a new fire engine complete with a “foam” system.
In June 2009, the HVFD celebrated its 100th Anniversary. To commemorate this occasion, the HVFD hosted the 95th Annual Allegheny County Firefighters Convention. Convention events included water battles, a street fair, and of course, a parade, and welcomed departments from all over Allegheny County and beyond.
The HVFD has a proud history and has been a community staple for over 100 years. As we enter our next chapter, we invite all residents to join our ranks. Not all members are structural firefighters; just as important are the members assisting with fundraising, community outreach, and other vital functions. For information on joining, or to ask questions, email us at membership -at- heidelbergfire -dot- com. Interested residents are also invited to check out one of our weekly training sessions, held every Wednesday at 7:00 pm.