Peabody Spotlight: WTAE Fire Response Probe Prompts Action

After joining WTAE Pittsburgh, Pa. as its news director in 2012, Justin Antoniotti noticed that its newscasts aired far more fires with “great flames” than stations in other markets did.

“I wondered why our photographers were getting there before firefighters,” Antoniotti said. “Either our assignment desk was really remarkable or there were slower response times.”

Raising the question triggered an investigation into the issue by reporter Paul Van Osdol, who spent months probing the long-standing volunteer fire department system that serves much of Western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh (the city has a paid fire department).

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“What we found was the basic system of fighting fires in Pennsylvania has not changed since the days of Ben Franklin,” Van Osdol said. Exposing that, he said, has already set changes in motion.

Van Osdol’s investigation, which is being honored with a Peabody Award Saturday night, revealed problems including the insufficient training of firefighters and state computer problems that kept fire departments from reporting critical information, as well as a steep decline in volunteers.

He found instances of fires turning fatal, despite local fire departments being just a mile or two away. In some cases, neighboring fire departments wouldn’t help each other out due to feuding chiefs, he said.

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Van Osdol took heat from the volunteer firefighter community for what they took as personal. At one point, they waged a grassroots “Fire Paul Osdol” campaign. A “Boycott WTAE” Facebook page got 6,000 likes.

In the time since, that backlash has turned to support, Van Osdol said, as the area’s firefighters have come to realize that he is advocating for them not attacking.

And as a first-time Peabody winner – and one of just three local broadcasters included among this year’s 30 honorees – Van Osdol says the acknowledgement “is a career highlight,” and “an incredible honor” to have his work considered in the same league as “the 60 Minutes of the world and incredible work being done by local stations around the country.”

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Most importantly, though, Van Osdol said he sees the investigation spurring changes in the system that could ultimately make it more efficient. The state has introduced legislation that would provide incentives like tax credits to volunteer firefighters and grants for fire departments that merge. 

Fire departments are now also able to provide the state with critical information used to analyze their services, including the response times that can be the difference between life and death.

“Do we know if these people died had the delay response been quicker? We don’t,” Van Osdol said. “But I will tell you that every minute is critical to saving lives.”