Water-Rescue Training Nears for City Crews

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
13 December 2011
By Joe Smydo

Pittsburgh aims to create one of the best water-rescue programs in the nation, public safety director Michael Huss said Monday, disclosing plans to put about 2,000 police officers, firefighters and paramedics through an eight-hour water-survival course and create about 10 new swiftwater rescue teams, including a pair of elite teams for the most difficult assignments.

Training begins Dec. 19.

"It's a huge undertaking," Mr. Huss said.

The announcement comes four months after four people died in a flash flood on Washington Boulevard.

About a dozen others were rescued that day by emergency-management workers who commandeered boats from a nearby marina. Mr. Huss said chronic flooding in other neighborhoods -- cars in Greenfield and Shadyside have floated away in recent years -- also underscored the need for enhanced rescue capabilities.

Currently, the city has a river rescue boat, inflatable boats carried on a couple of rescue trucks and a handful of other boats on trailers. After the Aug. 19 flood, it placed an inflatable boat at the Zone 5 police station on Washington Boulevard. The paramedics union says about 40 of its members are trained for water rescues.

However, Mr. Huss cited a pressing need for additional equipment -- and people trained to use it -- citywide.

Under his plan, all police cars and fire trucks would be equipped with personal flotation devices and rescue "throw bags." The city would purchase 11 swiftwater boats and place them at flood-prone areas throughout the city.

"I think it's what residents would like to see," said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, the body's public safety chair who represents western neighborhoods with flooding problems.

Mr. Huss said he hopes to create "one of the most robust water rescue programs in the nation." In a previous position as fire chief in Johnstown, Cambria County, Mr. Huss developed a swiftwater rescue team that has assisted during floods in Allegheny County.

In Pittsburgh, he envisions a "tiered level of capability" that requires new cooperation among the police, fire and EMS bureaus.

He said the first step is to begin putting about 2,000 public-safety employees -- virtually all police officers, firefighters and medics -- through an eight-hour course on water survival. Mr. Huss said the training -- to be conducted at the former Pittsburgh Peabody High School swimming pool -- will show first responders how to keep themselves alive and provide some assistance to others.

Officials of the state Fish and Boat Commission helped to train city public safety workers, who in turn will train their colleagues.

Anthony Weinmann, president of the paramedics union, called the training "a must" for police officers and firefighters who are weighed down by duty belts and turnout gear. He said the training also would be helpful for other city employees, such as public works teams that work around the rivers.

Mr. Huss said the new swiftwater rescue teams culled from public safety workers would receive an additional 48 hours of training, some of it in swiftwater conditions at McConnells Mill State Park.

Mr. Huss said the 11 new motorized boats would be stored on trailers at places such as the EMS stations in Bloomfield, Downtown and Knoxville and fire stations in Brookline, Elliott, Hazelwood, Homewood and Lawrenceville.

Two boats would be used for training or as spares.

In all, about 200 employees would serve on swiftwater rescue teams.

Mr. Huss said the "best of the best" swiftwater crew members would be assigned to a pair of 28-member elite teams with responsibility for the toughest assignments, such as rescues hampered by downed power lines. In emergencies, he said, the crews could be dispatched to other municipalities if the city didn't need them.

Mr. Huss hopes to purchase the 11 boats with $250,000 of the $80 million bond issue that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has proposed floating for capital needs next year and in 2013.

Tom D'Andrea, a city firefighter and Greenfield resident who has lobbied for flood-control measures in his neighborhood, said he's pleased with the swiftwater rescue plan. He said he's especially concerned about elderly residents who might "try to move their cars and get swept away" by fast-moving waters.

Traditionally, water rescues have been the responsibility of the EMS Bureau.

Firefighters and the EMS Bureau have had a frosty relationship over the years, but in the interest of public safety, Mr. Weinmann said, the paramedics union is willing to respect the administration's effort to bring firefighters into the program.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

First published on December 13, 2011 at 12:00 am