When divers pulled the body of a 3-year-old Armstrong County boy from the Allegheny River about a year ago, there were concerns about the emotional impact of the untimely death – for the recovery team as well only for the relatives of the young victim.
“Anything associated with children is difficult (for emergency crews),” said Dan Felack, navy commander of Leechburg-based Lower Kiski Swift Water Rescue, Flood Response and Public Safety dive teams. “You worry about how people are going to mentally accept it.”
Such tragic outcomes can be difficult for would-be rescuers to prepare for, but area response teams ensure they are ready in every other way to answer the call when someone is in distress on land. or in water.
“Westmoreland County has coordinated with numerous swiftwater rescue teams to come up with a county-wide plan to bring the teams together and train together,” Felack said. “Allegheny County also has a program, and we’re starting one in Armstrong County.”
This philosophy extends to the next level – in Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Region 13, which covers Pittsburgh and 14 surrounding counties.
Felack estimated that there were at least 26 certified water rescue teams and 80 ready-to-use lifeboats in western Pennsylvania. He noted that there was an effort to expand the area’s water rescue capabilities after Hurricane Ivan flooded the Pittsburgh area in 2004.
Since then, he said, a regional list has been compiled of “who has what specialist assets – whether you need dive teams, inflatable boats or anything else.”
“We train together twice a year, to familiarize ourselves in the event of a major (water rescue) incident. We’re all on the same page because we’ve all gone through the same training,” including sessions administered by the State Fisheries and Vessels Commission.
Winter drills have included mock rescues of ice fishermen from holes in frozen lakes.
Emergency organizations with boats, life jackets and related equipment recently joined forces to extend a lifeline to residents of Westmoreland and Allegheny counties who found themselves in danger from the rapid rise flood waters.
The Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department Water Rescue Team combined efforts with a team from North Huntingdon on August 5 to bring to dry land a woman and dog trapped in their home along Bailey Farm Road in Unity .
Greensburg crews also helped rescue 18 people, two dogs and two cats from flooded homes in the Unity village of Dorothy, according to George McFarland, captain of the firefighters’ water rescue and diving teams.
Depending on water conditions, McFarland noted, crews may have to set up a system of lines to safely guide boats to flood victims.
“Preparing for a water rescue requires having carabiners, ropes and pulleys and knowing how to use them,” he said. “You also need to be able to use a paddle.”
In addition to propelling a boat forward, he explained, a paddle can be used to probe ahead of any danger below the waterline.
First responder dive teams may be called in to search bodies of water for missing persons or evidence related to criminal investigations.
Greensburg’s 13-member dive team regularly practices underwater skills in the pool at the Greensburg YMCA. Additionally, McFarland said, “We swim to stay in shape.”
Divers should assess how many layers of clothing to wear under their drysuit to accommodate the water temperature. McFarland noted that the suit provides the diver with protection from contaminants that might be in the water, ranging from raw sewage to spilled fuel.
Greensburg’s dive team benefits from having masks fitted for underwater communication. “The mask has a microphone and headphones, and there’s a 200-foot line attached to the surface unit, so they can talk back and forth,” McFarland said.
A worthy investment
It takes a lot of investment, in dollars and personal effort, to get organizations like the Lower Kiski Rescue Group ready to help those in peril.
The group’s gear, including three dinghies and a trailer, has a replacement value of about $200,000, according to Felack. There are more than a dozen members in the specialized response teams. Many of them have completed 75 hours of training in all aspects of water rescue techniques, achieving the highest ‘technician’ rating.
This does not include more than 1,000 hours spent last year performing drills and maintaining equipment.
“Sometimes it takes several years for everyone to be trained to the technician level,” said Brad James, deputy chief of the Eureka Fire Rescue and EMS organization in Tarentum. “In addition to the time needed and the availability of the team members, we need the water conditions to cooperate. It takes whitewater to do whitewater training.
Eureka has several boats in its fleet, ranging from a 24-foot vessel for fighting fires on and along the Allegheny River to a 13-foot inflatable model that can be maneuvered for swift-water rescues, James said. .
“Since we’re so flood-prone in western Pennsylvania,” James said, “some of our boats and motors were initially supported by grants through Region 13.”
The Greensburg rescue team is equipped with a large aluminum boat and seven smaller inflatable structures.
“Region 13 gave us drysuits and helmets and personal flotation devices, but most of our funding comes from the City of Greensburg,” McFarland said. “Over the years, grants have been harder to get and people don’t donate like they used to.”
Sonar is an important tool in water rescues to detect objects below the surface. James noted that the Eureka team is testing a new portable sonar that offers greater flexibility compared to a fixed version mounted on a boat.
The Lower Kiski Rescue Group is experimenting with a sonar device that can be used to search under a boat while it is in a stationary position.
“Generally the boat should be in motion,” Felack said. Due to sediment and other debris, he noted, “one of the big problems in our western Pennsylvania waters is the lack of visibility.”
Ropes and ATVs help with rescues
Water rescues aren’t the only incidents that require first responders to work with ropes. On August 14, Sardis Firefighters installed a rope system to lower a man in a stretcher down steep terrain at Duff Park in Murrysville.
The fire department was one of several response units that combined efforts to transfer the man over varied terrain to a medical helicopter after he fell in the park.
It was the fourth time this year that Sardis volunteers had pulled out their rope rescue gear, according to Fire Chief Cody Paiano. Although infrequent, he said, such physical rescues are not uncommon.
The department used ropes to rescue motorists after their cars crashed into hillsides. In another emergency call, Paiano said: ‘A man was working at his home and fell in his basement. We had to pull him out using ropes. It took maybe half a dozen people to do it.
Muscular strength is usually required to perform a rope rescue, but Paiano noted that a pulley system allows firefighters to reduce the burden. “By using two double pulleys, we’re pulling 100 pounds each instead of 400 pounds,” he said.
After formal training in rope techniques, members of the Sardis department regularly hone their skills at the fire station. “We try to make it work every week internally,” Paiano said.
Westmoreland County Community College’s Public Safety Training Center in South Huntingdon is among the facilities where first responders can learn and practice rope rigging, abseiling and other skills they can rely on when they participate in rescues.
According to center director Marc Jackson, a basic rigging course for a rope rescue includes 16 hours of instruction, in addition to a similar commitment for an introductory fire service course.
Preparing for a rescue at height involves at least 32 hours of training plus additional time to pass a certification exam. Such rescues, Jackson noted, “could be off a cliff or a large multi-story building”.
All-Terrain Utility Vehicles played a role in the rescue effort at Duff Park, as they did in finding missing persons and other emergencies in areas not easily accessible by other means .
Among the organizations that can deploy such vehicles is the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Fire and Rescue Team, headquartered at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.
The approximately 70 team members drive all-terrain vehicles for an average of about 25 emergency responses each year in an area spanning Westmoreland, Fayette and Indiana counties.
“We’re a mix of people who just want to get out and help, but we’re not part of any particular fire department,” said team spokesman Mike Rosensteel, who happens to be a firefighter. of Greensburg.
Orienteering with a compass is among the training members can take, an important skill whether they’re helping fight a bushfire or searching for someone who’s gone missing.
“With the equipment we have, we can transport water into the woods or people out of the woods,” Rosensteel said. “We can bring water to the stage.
Since the team is usually called out to remote areas, Rosensteel said, “Communication is the most important thing. All members have a radio so we can talk to each other directly.