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North Neighborhoods
Scrapbook full of honors bespeaks lifetime of firefighting accomplishments

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

By Michael J. Dongilli

A 325-pound firefighting recruit once bet George Sacco -- who weighs about 150 -- that Sacco couldn't carry him down a ladder.

O'Hara Fire Marshal George Sacco doesn't plan to slow down even though he turns 90 next month. Sacco is inspecting an emergency light in the Fox Chapel Authority building with authority Manager Mark Nicely. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The prize was beer. Sacco drank free for a long time -- though he confessed that "I grunted hard all the way down" that ladder.

On June 17, Sacco, of O'Hara, will turn 90, with 73 years of fighting fires and teaching others how to fight them under his belt.

While he may no longer be up to carrying 300-pound men down ladders, he still loves to pass on what he's learned about the business. He remains a certified fire instructor, regularly making the rounds on the community college circuit in Butler and Allegheny counties and at local volunteer fire departments.

He also visits preschools and elementary schools in a program combining safety and showmanship.

The acting fire marshal in O'Hara since 1989, he continues to enforce township fire codes, inspect new construction and instruct local businesses on first aid and fire evacuation procedures.

On April 6, he received a longevity and community service award from the International Fire Code Council for his timeless contributions -- one more certificate to add to three scrapbooks overflowing with a lifetime of achievements.

Sacco started his fire career in 1929 with Atlantic Refining Co. in Lawrenceville. He doubled as a fuels tester and paid company fireman, required to respond at all hours to the company's steam whistle.

"I lived across the street and had to answer during the night, too, whether I liked it or not, and if I didn't answer, I had to tell them where I was that night," he said. Wages were 40 cents an hour and the rewards for a job well done were meager. "I had a fire at 3 a.m. one time and we put it out in 15 minutes. In my paycheck, I got a dime extra."

He laughs about that now, but less funny was the fire training. There wasn't any -- and there were no helmets or protective gear, either.

So he learned by trial and error -- a dangerous thing for a firefighter. One night, lightning struck an oil tank at the plant. As water from Sacco's hose entered the reservoir, the oil and water mix exploded, singeing his hair, charring his scalp and leaving him resolute that if he was going to stay in this business -- and stay alive -- he needed to learn as much as he could.

As techniques advanced, Sacco studied and applied them. From Atlantic, he moved on to become assistant chief of the fire brigade for what was then the Gulf Research facility in Harmar, now the U-PARC site. In 1954, he joined the Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department in O'Hara; he eventually would retire from the station as chief in 1983. By 1960, he was a certified state fire instructor.

If trainers, like buildings, had fire ratings, Sacco would set a lofty standard. He's considered by peers to be the best pump man around.

"The saying in fire service, especially in Western Pennsylvania, is 'God made water and George invented how to move it,' " said Larry Slagle, coordinator of Public Safety and Hazardous Materials Training at Butler County Community College.

Particularly in rural areas, where fires are typically fought without the advantage of hydrants, that know-how is a necessity. One method is to use tankers from multiple companies in a precision timing sequence. The river bank is another.

"They put the pumper right in the river and I show them how to get the water out," Sacco said. "Some of them can stay on top of the bank and put a hose down. It [just] depends on where you're at."

It might sound simple, but drawing water at perfect pressure and flow takes savvy technique.

Slagle has studied under Sacco and hired him for courses offered through the school. The two have been friends for nearly 40 years, and Slagle's admiration for the master's accomplishments is deep.

"The guy is the king of knowledge as far as pumping fire engines and moving water," Slagle said. "Anybody that knows how to pump or run a fire engine well, somewhere along the line, probably had George Sacco as his mentor."

Other colleagues have shown similar adulation. Three times, the Allegheny County Firemen's Association named Sacco Firefighter of the Year. His long list of chief and president titles and honorary or lifetime member status in numerous fire organizations has yielded framed memorabilia that decorate his two-story home on Orchard Drive.

One award that stands out is from the U.S. Patent Office for a novel hose design named the "adjustable water curtain." The product created an arched wall of water that kept a fire from spreading between buildings. Sacco received the patent in 1962, but a brass company beat him to market with a modified design. He never made a nickel.

John Kaus, retired Allegheny County fire marshal and another Sacco student and friend, said money never drove Sacco's passion. "Love of the profession," he said, "George could've stepped aside anytime and taken it easy, but he's out almost every night somewhere teaching a class."

Sacco is, however, reluctant to reveal one area of trade secrets for which he's also highly regarded: arson detection.

He belongs to the International Association of Arson Investigators and answers questions on the subject cautiously. There are the obvious clues -- accelerants and high or recently increased property insurance policies -- but in their absence, what tips him off?

"You hate to tell that too much because you tell the arsonist what you're looking for," Sacco explained. Coaxed for just one or two, he relents.

"If a guy sets a house on fire, this is very strange if he's going to ruin his house, it doesn't matter if he smashes a window or door. But [more often] he'll go in with a key and go out with a key. He'll set it on fire and lock the door. Don't ask me why."

But ask him about safety and Sacco's never short on secrets. He credits pure luck during those early days for his survival, but he says firefighters' fortunes today rest in how well they listen.

"You will not pass out in a fire if you do what you're told," he said. "If I put you in [a room of] smoke and turn you around one time, you wouldn't know how to get out. You never go in and wander. What you do is take a hose line with you, and you don't let go of that hose!"

For residents, improved building and electrical codes have done a lot to protect houses from fire, but Sacco puts the smoke detector at the top of the life-saver list.

"They're designed to wake you up," he said. "People think they can smell smoke in their sleep. They cannot."

Sacco also has written a book for the general public, "50 Commandments of Fire Safety," a mostly common-sense mantra of do's and don'ts and just one more way he gets his message across.

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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