100-year-old volunteer fire department may be dissolved
Third-generation volunteer firefighters are hoping the Pennsylvania council does not break up its fire department in favor of a contract with Pittsburgh Fire
By Michael Henninger
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INGRAMS, Pa. — Fighting fire runs in Scott Ruta's blood.
Mr. Ruta, the 45-year-old assistant chief for Ingram's Volunteer Fire Department, remembers the commitment, and all the absent hours, that his father, Mario Ruta, now 86, dedicated to being a Pittsburgh firefighter. "He would come home smelling like smoke almost all the time," Scott Ruta said.
That same blood runs in the veins of Mr. Ruta's three children, Breanna, 22, Lexie, 18, and Trevor, 16, who have all chosen to follow their father's footsteps and become, respectively, two members and one junior member of Ingram's VFD.
"We've talked about renaming it the Ruta Volunteer Fire Department," jokes Ingram Chief Don Browning
Now, this century-old department is fighting for its survival. Ingram Borough Council is considering disbanding the volunteer department and contracting fire services with the City of Pittsburgh or the neighboring Crafton department. A vote could be taken as soon as Monday.
The possible closure of the department has roiled the community and made borough meetings packed and angry affairs.
Scott Ruta sees volunteer firefighting as all about a sense of community. The Ingram department has served the borough's 3,000 plus residents since 1907. Its members throw parades in town on holidays, and for Christmas, drive their fire engines to every home with children to hand out candy canes.
"I've actually watched my dad run out of the house in the middle of us making Thanksgiving dinner to go help other people," says Breanna Ruta. "One year, it was me and dad that had to go out on Thanksgiving. Our mashed potatoes were cold by the time we got home."
Last year her immersion in that life was made clear. She had gained 10 pounds, unusual for her, but thought it was just winter weight and went about her firefighting duties.
On May 3, the Ingram department got a call for carbon monoxide in an apartment building. Breanna was at the scene and helped lift and ascend a 35-foot ladder to a balcony with several other firefighters. Ultimately she rescued a cat from the building. "I held him in my arms like a baby," she says.
The following day she experienced sharp back pains. Before Scott Ruta could get her into his car and start toward the hospital, her son Keegan rushed headfirst into the world, delivered into his mother's hands on the sidewalk in front of the Ruta home. An ambulance arrived in time for paramedics to help pull out the baby's feet. During labor Breanna got three text messages from her fellow firefighters asking if she was OK. They had heard the ambulance call on their radios.
The weekend Breanna brought Keegan home, Chief Browning came over bearing diapers and baby clothes. The family recalled the support they got when Scott came down with a yearlong illness: Department firefighters called daily to check in, brought food, visited Scott in the hospital, gave money to help cover bills and organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the family. "This fire department is our family," Breanna said.
Keegan's birth -- the day after a fire call, and at the hands of fellow emergency responders -- underlined the ties to the community.
As the decision looms, Scott Ruta and his family continue living their day-to-day lives. Mr. Ruta works as a printer for the University of Pittsburgh. Breanna works and takes care of 10-month-old Keegan. Lexie and Trevor attend high school, and Lexie plans to attend the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
But at night, it weighs on them. During a mandatory CPR class, the Rutas listen to Chief Browning talk about how important it is to continue doing their jobs as firefighters despite the potential closing. On the eve of borough council meetings, they join their fellow firefighters in going door to door, leaving fliers asking for support and attendance. The subject came up repeatedly at the dinner table on a recent evening, as the family ate pizza.
"It's just really heartbreaking whenever you join the department in December and hear that they're closing you in June," says Trevor Ruta of the possible closure. Without a car, Trevor has been known to run the five blocks from his house to the fire station for a call.
Should Ingram Borough dissolve its volunteer fire department, the borough would shed the costs of a new engine and would instead pay an annual fee to Pittsburgh or Crafton.
Scott Ruta hopes for a different outcome, that council will vote against disbanding the department so his family can continue in their service to Ingram. Along those lines, Breanna even holds out hope that the Ruta tradition will continue, and Keegan will one day join the department.
"I like the idea, but I don't like the idea because that means that I'll never be able to retire," says Scott. "I don't let [my kids] go on calls without me, and [Keegan] won't be doing it either. So I'll be showing up to calls until they put me in the grave."
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