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Baptism by fire

| Tuesday, March 22, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

New Pittsburgh fire Chief Michael Huss sat down at his desk Monday just hours after six city fire stations officially closed in the city's bid to cut his bureau's costs.

It was his first day on the job.

Huss, Johnstown's chief for five years, said he sees his appointment as a fresh start and an opportunity to direct a reformed department. Johnstown's department, which endured similar budget cuts, has about 40 firefighters and three stations; Pittsburgh has 690 firefighters and, as of yesterday, 29 stations.

"Today is as good a day as any," Huss, 37, said of the station closings that became official at 8 a.m. "We're trying to make sure that everything is covered, that the stations are locked down. I'll be involved with it from the ground up. And the folks here have already done a lot of work."

City Council last week approved a 5-year firefighters contract, which included closing stations in Marshall-Shadeland, Bloomfield, Allentown, the Hill District, Overbrook and Troy Hill. City officials say the contract, which includes a no-layoff clause, will save the city $10.7 million annually through wage and overtime cuts, higher medical coverage payments by firefighters and the station closings.

So as Huss' first shift began, the last shift of city firefighters left the historic Troy Hill fire station, where several dozen residents clapped and cheered.

"I never thought I would see this day," said resident Mildred "Pinky" McGlothlin. She was among those who led the failed attempt to keep the 104-year-old station open.

Troy Hill residents worry about response times to fires in their neighborhoods, with firefighters responding first from Spring Garden, which has served Troy Hill in the past.

Bridget Dehler has lived in Troy Hill for 37 years and said her parents' home was destroyed in a fire in January 2003, but quick response from Troy Hill's Engine 39 saved their lives.

Dehler said Troy Hill can't withstand any more city budget cuts.

"They took our pool, they took our rec center, they took our crossing guards, and now our fire station," she said. "It makes you wonder what we're paying taxes for anymore."

Many who were on hand yesterday morning were angered by what they viewed as broken promises from city officials.

"We had promises from at least five mayors that the station would stay open, including Mayor (Tom) Murphy," said fire Capt. Donald Dorsey. He said he was among those hopeful that the next mayor might reconsider the closures. Murphy is not running for re-election.

A small group of people gathered yesterday morning in front of a fire engine and sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," vowing to stay in the station. "They can't make us leave," McGlothlin said. "The people of Troy Hill own this station. We're not done yet."

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