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Valley's first responders get certified for ice rescues

Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The Rev. Gary Lyon, left, of Leechburg has a harness connected to him by Frank Lemon of New Kensington during a drill in the frigid waters of Northmoreland Park in Allegheny Township on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. They are members of the Armstrong County Task Force 340 team and were participating in weekend-long training for ice rescue.

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By Braden Ashe
Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Although battling extreme temperatures is part of a firefighter's job description, most don't imagine those temperatures to pose a hypothermic threat.

Such was the case, however, for the Armstrong County 340 Task Force, which conducted ice rescue drills on Sunday in the frigid waters of Allegheny Township's Northmoreland Park.

With freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall through most of the morning, the task force had to break a hole in the ice to begin its eight-hour training session. Each of the 40 or so team members spent about five minutes in the water demonstrating to Pennsylvania Region 13 Task Force instructors their ability to conduct ice water rescues.

Among the Region 13 Task Force's primary directives is to establish communication systems and response methods that work among 13 counties.

The ice rescue training session represents one of four drills emergency responders must complete to be state-certified swift water emergency technicians. About half of the members must complete some combination of the other three drills to earn their Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission certification. But after Sunday, all task force members are properly trained and equipped to respond to ice water emergency situations, said Dan Felack, Task Force 340 deputy chief.

“We want people to know that they have the trained resources available,” he said. “The viability for people in freezing water is 30 to 60 minutes, so the window is small. We don't want regular residents trying to help each other out and end up with three or four bodies in the water. They need to call us.”

The 340 Task Force — which includes Leechburg Volunteer Fire Department, Vandergrift Fire Department No. 1, Markle Volunteer Fire Department of Allegheny Township and Lower Kiski Emergency Services — completed the drills alongside Eureka Fire Rescue and EMS of Tarentum.

During the training session, emergency responders must first demonstrate their ability to pull themselves out of the water. They're then asked to rescue another person in the water from above the surface level in what is known as a “reach method.” Finally, they re-enter the water for a “direct contact” rescue of the victim.

“Getting in the water is a last resort,” Felack said. “But sometimes it's necessary, and our guys are able to do it.”

In addition to helmets, life vests and harnesses, each team member was provided a dry suit for insulation in the frigid water. Ken Fouse, 57, of Vandergrift Fire Department No. 1 said the suits are “life savers” — if they're working properly.

“I didn't know I had a leak in mine until I jumped in,” he said. “It was immediately obvious that it was there. It was a bit of a shock, but it wasn't really bad until I had to get out.”

Fouse overcame the equipment malfunction to pass the two-day training session. Sunday's drills were preceded by instruction on Saturday at the Valley High School pool, where crews can “learn in a controlled atmosphere before the crews are exposed to the harsh conditions outside,” according to Region 13 Task Force instructor Tom Buchan.

Buchan, who is a public safety instructor at Bucks County Community College, said interagency cooperation is growing more prevalent each year in emergency management. Overseeing training sessions, he said, ensures that different crews can work together to make a rescue at a moment's notice.

“When you get in a live situation, you're going to want the guys you might have to work with speaking the same language,” he said. “You don't have time to sit around and talk in these types of situations, or it's too late.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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