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Need rises for skilled river rescue squads in region

| Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:52 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Eureka Fire-Rescue personnel tow an overturned boat back to the Tarentum Marina in June 2012. Eureka's river rescue squad is part of the Allegheny County Swiftwater/Flood Response Team, which is busy during summer months on the region's rivers. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

The hotter it gets, the busier George McBriar gets.

“As recreation increases on area rivers, so do the mishaps,” said McBriar, coordinator of the Allegheny County Swiftwater/Flood Response Team and chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company, which has its own water rescue squad.

The call volume for river rescues on the Allegheny River alone is up 15 percent to 20 percent, according to McBriar.

Typically, the Blawnox company gets a dozen calls during the boating season. That volume is up to 18 to 20 already.

Many calls are for boats in distress.

“Sometimes, their motor dies and they are getting too close to the dam,” McBriar said.

Many of the accidents involve inexperienced boaters and mechanical problems with water craft, he said.

Locally, the Allegheny County rescue team, made up of nine member departments — including the City of Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit and volunteer fire departments from Blawnox, Tarentum and Etna — was established more than three years ago.

The need for dedicated water rescue teams surfaced when Allegheny County had to secure extra help for water rescue equipment and personnel in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan when 95 municipalities were under states of emergency.

“The need for water rescue is increasing as we take a look at our three rivers,” said Alvin Henderson, chief of Allegheny County's Department of Emergency Services.

“We've always had substantial barge traffic moving commodities,” he said. “And we've become a Mecca for recreational boats.”

Water rescue units are increasingly called on to pull boaters out of the water, help watercraft in distress and rescue flood victims.

The Allegheny team was called out when an Aliquippa woman died when she was a passenger on a personal watercraft that went over the Dashields Dam on the Ohio River in Edgeworth in late June.

The Blawnox company recently was called on to bring up a submerged vehicle that had drifted into the river in Oakmont.

To be ready for the calls when they come takes training and practice.

More than 140 water rescuers from area counties, including Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland, Somerset and Cambria, will take part in practice drills on Saturday in the O'Hara and Blawnox portions of the Allegheny River.

All of the rescuers and their respective paid or volunteer units are part of the Region 13 Homeland Security Task Force.

Preparation is everything for the team, which was on alert during the heavy rains last week.

They were ready to launch rescue boats at a moment's notice for flash floods anywhere in the region.

Besides honing rescue skills, the training session later this week will help rescuers work in sync during an emergency.

“This gets all the people working together,” McBriar said.

“Because when you're out on these rescue calls, you may end up working with someone from Westmoreland County or elsewhere and you have to standardize your training and practices.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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