Fire, water training mix for Freeport volunteer company

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 8:29 a.m.

Freeport volunteer firefighters have jumped in to become the latest member of the Armstrong County Water Rescue Task Force.

For the first time in the department's history, 10 firefighters are certified in swift water rescue.

They trained at the dam outflow at Crooked Creek State Park in Burrell Township.

“We'd go right up to the outflow and have to direct ourselves right or left and go around obstacles,” said Lt. Ryan Sweeny with the Freeport Volunteer Fire Department. “The advantage is that they can hold the water back (in the days prior) to increase the speed for our training.”

They plan to complete the remaining four classes to become certified at the National Fire Protection Association technician level. That requires completing four 16-hour courses in water rescue and emergency response, emergency boat operation and rescue, advance line systems rescue and ice rescue.

Classes are offered at community colleges and the expense is paid by the department.

On Wednesday, the task force trained on the Kiski River near the Apollo Bridge. Freeport fire chief Bill Lindley and Lt. Ryan Sweeny practiced rescuing an injured person stranded on an island of rocks in the middle of the river, which was at a low level that day.

A group lifted the person onto a floating stokes basket, into a raft and then brought him to shore.

Other exercises included rescuing two people floating down the river and training on how to fire a line gun, which uses pressurized air to shoot a rope to a person hundreds of feet away.

Task force members said Freeport coming on board was a natural fit and will expand the team's coverage area.

“A lot of our incidents happen on the Allegheny. They're right there, so they have a little bit quicker access,” said Capt. Dave Lynch, with Lower Kiski Valley Emergency Services, one of the founding departments of the task force. “Freeport can (also) start up the Kiski River and cover the downstream, while we work from upstream and go down to meet them.”

So far this summer, the task force has responded to nine calls for service.

“It's been a very busy summer,” Lynch said.

The task force, known as Team 340, has 30 certified technicians. Rescue missions are “very manpower intensive,” so the more members they have, the better, Lynch said.

Vandergrift Fire Department Company 1, Leechburg Volunteer Fire Company, Markle Volunteer Fire Department and Eureka Fire Rescue are also members. They are dispatched mainly by Armstrong County 911, which can contact Allegheny and Westmoreland County 911 to dispatch departments there.

Pooling resources is one of the advantages of joining forces.

“Rather than just one department trying to come up with the equipment and enough people to have a team, we pool together people and equipment to make one big team,” Sweeny said.

Each department has their own water rescue boat and they're also equipped with a dry suit, which is preferable in cold weather, as well as a helmet, life vest and harness.

The Armstrong County Water Rescue Task Force formed in 2011 after a rescue mission on the Kiski River near Roaring Run.

A couple of kayakers hadn't returned on time and river conditions were rough that day. The boaters were found on land uninjured and the incident served as an important learning opportunity.

“We had all four boats out on the water in different areas looking for these people,” Lynch said. “For safety reasons, we decided that we should work together more.”

Tom Schaeffer, task force chief and chief of Vandergrift Co. 1, said all the departments are now able to work more effectively.

“We couldn't really communicate with each other,” he said. “We've overcome a lot of obstacles that we had before.”

Dan Felack task force deputy chief and marine officer for Lower Kiski Valley Emergency Services, said the team has made great strides in becoming a cohesive unit.

“We are there to develop a working relationship and make sure that we're prepared and equipped to handle emergencies,” he said.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or

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