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Western Pennsylvania firemen share stories, friendship at convention in Vandergrift

August 22, 2018
Western Pennsylvania firemen share stories, friendship at convention in Vandergrift
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Kittanning Hose Company No. 4 members, Ken Edwards, of Kittanning, (left) Tim Crytzer, of Ford City (middle) and Andy Peters of Kittanning work to control their hose in the Western Pennsylvania Fireman’s Convention’s “Battle of the Barrel” contest in Vandergrift, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The goal is for a team of four volunteer firefighters to push an empty barrel across the opponents line using water pressure and nozzle control. Kittanning Hose Company No. 4 took top honors.

Wielding fire hoses, this time they weren’t battling a blaze but fighting over an empty beer keg Saturday, which seems senseless, but nonetheless fun for the troops of volunteer firefighters gathering in Vandergrift for the 125th convention of the Western Pennsylvania Fireman’s Association.

The festivities included a fire truck parade through Vandergrift on Saturday, adding to a flurry of events since Friday and continuing through Wednesday.

They played cards and corn hole, roasted a pig, and with the remaining time, will honor their dead as well as their heroes.

Up to 5,000 firefighters are expected from at least 150 fire companies.

“It’s a get-together that’s all about friendship,” said Steve Potoka, chief of Vandergrift Fire Dept. No. 2, which hosted the event.

Vandergrift firefighter Nadine Artman, 28, added that the convention is good for the town as the visiting firefighters frequented local businesses. Some camped in “Tent City,” the field owned by the fire company off of Longfellow Street Extension where many of the events were held, including a live concert after the Saturday’s parade.

The convention is more social than anything, according to Potoka, especially joining the younger firefighters with the long-timers.

They played cards into the night Friday with the younger firefighters besting the older ones, according to Potoka.

He blamed it on the elderly players on not being able to see their cards.

Wilmer Shaner, 86, of Vandergrift, although admittedly old, didn’t play but watched, and attributed the card game loss of his peers to spirited beverages.

The volunteer firefighters who risk their lives to save other lives and property apparently spend their free time coming up with comic but biting zingers: “Now get in the truck, sit down, stay warm and shut up!” Potoka famously said to Shaner when he showed up at fire and said he was cold.

In fact, Potoka decided to memorialize his “shut-up” line in a tribute to Shaner in this year’s convention program.

The comment is laughable because it was Shaner who served as a role model for others - never missing a call in 64 years when he was home.

These are good times for the firefighters.

Things got better for Shaner as the convention went on: He was named Grand Marshal for the parade of fire trucks Saturday night.

Upon learning of the distinction only hours before the event, Shaner teared up one moment and then quickly delivered a well-received cuss word the next.

He plans to retire next week after the convention.

Asked why, Shaner said, “You’re kidding? Who wants to get up at 3 a.m. in the morning in the winter to fight a fire.”

Times have changed since Shaner headed to the fire station when the whistle blew. Now he’s alerted by a pager or cell phone, at a time when the ranks of volunteer firefighters have thinned.

He said the hardest part of the volunteer job is having common sense.

Shaner described his decades of service -- known for his prowess for operating a boom on a snorkel fire truck -- as “a joy.”

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