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Rescue crews put skills to test in icy Youghiogheny River

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 4:11 a.m.
Matt Kauper and Nate Steinberg of Blawnox Volunteer Fire Co. pull B.J. Throop of NorthWest EMS to safety during a river rescue drill on the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport on Saturday. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Elizabeth Volunteer Fire Co. Assistant Chief Jeremy Rager and Capt. Ken Kirschner guide an inflatable rescue boat through a drill on the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport on Saturday. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
John Soderberg, kneeling at right, of Pittsburgh River Rescue leads a demonstration with a line gun, which uses a compressed gas cylinder to deploy a leader line for long-distance rescues, during a Saturday training on the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

Crews from across Allegheny County put their rescue skills to the test in frigid Youghiogheny River waters on Saturday.

With temperatures in McKeesport in the low 20s, the county's Swiftwater/Flood Response Team challenged members to participate in a series of drills, gauging their ability to operate crafts and equipment while battling the cold.

“Originally, this exercise was intended to be an ice rescue drill,” Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services Alvin Henderson said. “With there being no ice on the Yough, we turned it into a cold weather water rescue. It gives our crews a different experience of getting into cold water.”

Crews from McKeesport Fire Department, Glassport Citizens Hose Co. No. 1, Elizabeth Volunteer Fire Co., Blawnox VFC, Eureka VFC, Crescent Township Volunteer Fire Department, NorthWest EMS and Pittsburgh EMS gathered along Water Street at a stage that overlooks the river.

“This is an ideal location for training,” said McKeesport Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Margliotti, a deputy coordinator for the county team. “It gives us a nice platform to work from and observe, and it's a safe place to train.”

In jet skis and inflatable boats, they took turns performing mock rescues while navigating river courses with simulated debris. They threw lines from the shore to rescue peers and practiced self-saves they could use in the field.

“It's important for us to maintain our skills in operating this equipment and utilizing our gear,” Henderson said. “Most of the gear is designed to keep the water off, but it's not really designed for warmth. They have to dress differently.”

Dr. Micha Campbell, medical director of the county's Hazardous Materials Medical Response Team, observed the drill with attention to the crews' well-being. The Salvation Army was on scene to provide refreshments and keep crews warm.

“Our primary focus is the health and safety of the responders,” Campbell said, noting that hypothermia is a major concern in cold water rescues. “We're familiar with the rescue environment and the demands that are put on the rescuers.”

Response team coordinator George McBriar, chief of Blawnox VFC, said the crews' extensive training is geared toward safety and efficiency.

“It's rare that we can plan a drill of this size for people from all over the county to attend,” McBriar said. “But it's a drill that reinforces everybody doing everything the same way. It doesn't matter which rescue team you're on. You're all training the same way.”

If county crews are called to assist anywhere in Pennsylvania or out of state, they know how to work with other emergency personnel to remain safe during rescue operations, McBriar explained.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or