Landslides put Baldwin firefighters in financial peril

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 10:33 p.m.

Baldwin Borough volunteer firefighters had big hopes during winter, planning to replace a century-old station on Churchview Avenue with a modern garage, training space and a luxury they've not had: in-house showers.

Then, their hillside gave way.

The landslides that began on Jan. 14 behind Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1 have postponed any chance for a fire hall as the volunteers struggle to pay for cleanup and stabilization that could cost more than $300,000 — a dramatic hit to their annual budget of about $125,000.

Standard insurance coverage won't pay for the work, which could jeopardize budgets for firefighter safety gear.

“It could put us under,” said fire Chief Kevin Kenny, 42, of Baldwin.

Firefighters are seeking help from state lawmakers. Borough officials gave the company its full annual allocation — about $75,000 — earlier than usual.

That money went toward initial debris-clearing and stabilizing work when the wooded hill crumbled during a mid-winter warm spell.

Firefighters usually would have put that money toward payments on an $800,000 fire engine they bought in 2006. About $300,000 in debt remains on the rig, which helps the company protect 4,000 homes in its primary territory.

“We've been trying to lend what support we can,” borough manager John Barrett said. He said the landslide debris went to the borough's landfill, and the borough will try to help the fire company find financial assistance.

“We just don't have a surplus on hand to help with a project that, at the end of the day, is still on private property,” Barrett said.

State support could be meager, too.

“I'm hopeful. Optimistic? I'm not sure about that,” said Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick. A tight state budget doesn't leave “extra funding laying around anymore,” he said.

The financial uncertainty forced firefighters to put on hold an estimated $280,000 in work to secure the steep hill long term. About 4,000 square feet of hillside tumbled toward neighboring St. Josaphat Cemetery during slides early this year, said Bill Gregor, a project manager for Advanced Builders Inc.

Firefighters estimated the ground dropped at least 25 feet as cascading Earth toppled trees and threatened headstones.

“They've got a water problem. That, coupled with the fact that (the soil) wasn't placed properly, that's what caused the problem,” Gregor said. He said the hillside contained “loose fill” and once was a dump for old pipes, concrete and other debris.

Advanced Builders hauled more than 3,000 cubic yards of material from the site. Gregor said about 14,000 more needs to be removed, re-situated and compacted to prevent ground-shifting.

Firefighters said the hill did not slide in the past. The Baldwin station has occupied the property since 1929. It has received support from local donations, the borough, the state and rent from adjacent private tenants.

Fire company leaders might organize a community fundraiser, though they'd prefer not to ask residents to pay, they said. They're accepting offers of help — including ideas — at 412-882-2510.

“We'll pull through it, one way or another,” said Assistant Chief William Connors, 30, of Baldwin. “But it's going to be a long haul.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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