Pittsburgh to Train Responders in Water Rescues

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Officials say they will train all Pittsburgh public safety employees — approximately 2,000 police officers, firefighters and paramedics — in basic water-rescue techniques so they can respond to emergencies such as the flash flood in August that killed four people on Washington Boulevard.

The city also will establish advanced water-rescue teams at nine fire and emergency medical services stations near waterways, and at the Zone 5 police station on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park. About 180 employees will make up the teams, which will have boats and equipment necessary to respond to emergencies around the clock. Two of the teams will receive additional training for even more complicated rescues.

Public Safety Director Michael Huss, who was part of a similar program when he served as Johnstown’s fire chief, estimated the training will cost Pittsburgh about $500,000, but said it is necessary.

“We have some really good rescue people here in the city. The problem is we don’t have enough of them,” Huss said on Monday.

Joseph King, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 1, said Lt. Patrick Shaw began working several months ago with representatives of the city police and EMS bureaus to develop the training.

“We’re all for this,” he said. “All the unions are cooperating on this. Anything that’s going to expand our safety operations, there is no debating.”

The city will use in-house instructors who have undergone their own training. Classes start Dec. 19 and continue for eight weeks. Huss said he hopes everything will be in place before the spring thaw begins.

A downpour on Aug. 19 trapped numerous vehicles in up to nine feet of water at a low point on Washington Boulevard near the Allegheny River and killed four people: a Plum mother and her two children and an Oakmont woman. PennDOT is erecting an emergency system that will automatically restrict access to the road in the event of heavy rain. In addition, neighborhoods in the city’s East End experience chronic flooding each year during periods of heavy rain.

Huss said the flash flooding put responding officers’ lives in danger because they had no training or equipment to go into the water, but did so anyway. Now, life vests and rescue ropes will be put in every police cruiser.

Last year, Allegheny County created a water response team of volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel from municipalities across the county, including Pittsburgh police river rescue, said Alvin Henderson Jr., acting chief of the county’s emergency services department. Henderson said it has about 30 members, plus additional support people. They respond to emergencies across the county and went to central Pennsylvania during heavy flooding there last summer.

“It’s all extremely needed based on our three navigable rivers and the Youghiogheny River and our history of flash flooding,” Henderson said.

Johnstown Fire Chief Tony Kovacic said about 22 of the city’s 34 firefighters serve on the water rescue team there, now about 15 years old.

“It works very well,” he said. “Instantly, we can deploy folks to rescues.”

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