Allegheny County police counting on remote-operated river vehicle

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County police received a $131,000 federal grant to purchase a remote-operated river vehicle that can go underwater and search for items ranging from evidence in crimes to bombs.

The remote-controlled device is part of a larger river security plan developed by the Port of Pittsburgh to secure the region's waterways, officials said.

“We do have calls that go into rivers and bodies of water,” county police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said. “In the past, we've had to dive into the river for parts of the crime.”

Moffatt said the device could be used to search for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, underwater.

“I don't want to scare people, but it's a precaution,” Moffatt said.

Richard Linn, operations chief of River Rescue for Pittsburgh EMS, said the city got a similar device in the fall.

Linn said the ROV — as his crew refers to it — weighs about 20 pounds and is cube-shaped, about 18 inches across. The remote control is about the size of an Xbox controller.

“You can look for things while keeping the divers safe. You can search the bottom of the river for explosive or hazardous material, that way the diver is safe,” Linn said. “You can search the hulls of boats for mines.”

He said the city has not had to use the device in an emergency situation.

Port of Pittsburgh Assistant Executive Director Mary Ann Bucci said Homeland Security rules prevent her from talking specifically about river security plans, but said a regional security concept was developed in 2007.

The Port of Pittsburgh region stretches into West Virginia and southeastern Ohio, and nearly 33 million tons of freight move through the port's rivers annually. She said the port has doled out 75 grants over the past five years to municipalities and police agencies, including the county police.

“With all of our projects, we try to mitigate risk in the district,” Bucci said. “I think in any region, you have risk factors. Look along the rivers — you have PNC Park, Heinz Field, locks and dams, barges carrying commodities.”

The Coast Guard meets monthly with city and county officials to discuss public safety, weather and industry issues and their potential effects on the rivers, said Lt. Alanna McGovern. Any flammable or explosive material is reported to the Coast Guard.

Mike Monahan, president of Campbell Transportation Co. in Houston, Washington County, said his company must follow security protocols when its barges carry dangerous cargo.

“Depending on the type of cargoes, we have to report to the Coast Guard at different intervals (on the river) so they know where we are,” Monahan said. “We also have vessel ID cards where all employees are screened by the federal government.”

Monahan said dangerous cargo includes ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizer, and benzine, a petroleum product.

“We communicate it to the Coast Guard,” Monahan said. “You don't hang a sign on the barge saying, ‘This is ammonium nitrate.' Obviously, with all the bridges in Pittsburgh, additional security can't be a bad thing.”

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or

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