For New PIT Firefighters, It’s All in the Family

10 recruits, some with fire service in their DNA, take oath to serve airport

By Julie Bercik

Published January 13, 2023

Read Time: 4 mins


For Autumn Johnson and Patrick Davis, fire service runs in the family. Johnson is a fourth-generation firefighter, and Davis is third generation.

“All through my childhood, I have always looked up to my dad,” Johnson said. “He was a medic in the Army, a firefighter since he was 16 years old, and the chief of a rescue company in my hometown. He is the one who got me started down this path.”

On Jan. 13, Johnson and Davis took the firefighter’s oath to join the Allegheny County Airport Authority Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) unit, along with eight fellow recruits, and were issued their badges and helmets with their families looking on.

“We base everything we do on integrity, trust and dependability,” said Chief Tom Bonura. “We do things through two main focuses: humble servitude and being part of a team.”

Friday’s swearing-in brings to 51 the number of firefighters employed by ARFF.

“Not everyone gets to make it into this seat,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the airport authority, at the ceremony. “These 10 people came through a very rigorous selection process, went through a rigorous training program and made it, and we are really proud to welcome them to the team.”

The recruits went through 19 weeks of extensive training, covering fire, rescue and EMS.

“They have worked hard, and they are ready,” said ARFF Lt. Brad Kaiser.

Together, the recruits took the oath, received their badges and helmet fronts, and with the ringing of a bell, were officially called to service.

The new firefighters

Each firefighter was attracted to working for the airport’s fire department for different reasons.

Sean Tkacsik serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a C-17 engine mechanic and sees working as a firefighter for the airport authority as another way of serving the community.

“This job offers such a uniqueness and allows for the development of key skills and for continual growth in knowledge,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the impact I can make on others’ lives, while also bettering my own through continually learning and growing during my career here.”

Davis, the third-generation firefighter, knew he wanted to be a firefighter since he was a boy. He’s been a firefighter for years, but always kept PIT in mind.

“Pittsburgh has always had an incredible reputation in the ARFF industry, in the fire service,” he said. “I thought, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to be with people who are so disciplined?’”

Prior to graduation, PIT ARFF’s newest firefighting recruit class underwent 19 weeks of extensive training covering fire, rescue and EMS. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Jason Bridge, a father of two children, has been a volunteer firefighter off and on since 2002. He learned about ARFF when he started working for the county 911 Center six years ago.

“It became my dream to work as an ARFF firefighter at Pittsburgh International Airport,” he said. “My passion for firefighting and aviation have now combined into my career, and it is a dream come true.”

Shayne Garrity’s grandfather was his mentor and a career firefighter, and now Garrity is following in his footsteps. Michael Hartman is a volunteer firefighter and decided to make it his career.

Autumn Johnson, the fourth-generation firefighter, said her family is adding a fifth generation to the fire service.

“My husband is in it and my nephew has just recently started, so he’d be the fifth generation as a firefighter,” she said. “It’s basically in our blood.”

Adam Riddle, an Army veteran, worked for Pennsylvania as an installation firefighter at Fort Indiantown Gap Fire Department. When he saw the PIT job posted, he knew it was a “no-brainer” to apply.

“PIT’s fire department has a reputation of being one of the most professional and proactive fire departments in the state,” he said. “Even working on the other side of the state, we would talk about some of the experiences we had with them through the training facility and the professionalism they displayed.

“I feel there is a lot of room for continuing education and experience to improve my career and make me a better public servant and asset to the airport authority.”

Thomas DeAngelis has been in fire service since he was 14 years old, and Larry Zamora started as a junior firefighter when he was 16. Both want to become career firefighters.

Thomas Miller, the youngest member of the recruit class, is also a volunteer firefighter. The department’s reputation is what attracted him.

“They are such a progressive fire department and something I want to be a part of, the growth here at Pittsburgh,” he said.

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