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Pittsburgh's water rescuers learn how to 'work smarter'

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Chris Chirichetti, the instructor from Beaver Falls, is able to grab onto a rope thrown by colleagues as he is extracted from the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state Park.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Police Officer Aaron Spangler is pulled to safety by Pittsburgh Police Officer Louis Schweitzer (left,) and Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss, as he is extracted from the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state Park.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
As he is carried along the swift current, Pittsburgh Firefighter Aaron Spangler is able to snag a thrown rescue rope as he is extracted from the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state park.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Firefighter David Cunningham (right,) is able to grab onto a rope thrown by colleagues as he is extracted from the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state Park.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
As he is carried along by the swift current, Jerry Hirschfeld, Battalion Chief 2nd District Oakland, is able to snag a thrown rescue rope as he is extracted from the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state park.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Joe King, (face up in water,) president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, plays the part of helpless victim, as he is carried across the fast moving water of Slippery Rock Creek by colleagues including Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss (left,) at McConnells Mill State Park, Friday, June 14, 2013. Firefighters, police, and paramedics participated in a swift water rescue training course at the state park.

As Pittsburgh firefighter Joe King leaned on a paddle and picked his way across Slippery Rock Creek on Friday morning, he lost his footing and began floating downstream.

He grabbed at the ropes firefighters and police officers tossed his way from shore, finally grasping one after about 100 yards. Public Safety Director Michael Huss and Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 President Michael LaPorte pulled him to safety.

“It was a good exercise for these guys,” said King, the president of the International Association of Firefighters Local No. 1. “Not that I wanted to be the stooge. When I saw them two, I knew they were going to catch me.”

King, LaPorte — a police sergeant — and Huss were among the 18 public safety employees learning water rescue and emergency response skills at the creek in McConnells Mill State Park in Lawrence County. A storm created a flash flood on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park in August 2011 that killed four people, prompting Huss to train all public safety employees in shore-based water rescues. Roughly 200 employees — largely firefighters — are learning the more advanced rescue techniques this year.

“What's really dangerous is flash flooding and urban flooding,” Huss said. “There's no doubt in my mind this training will save lives in the future.”

The firefighters, including battalion chiefs who volunteered for the training, work at stations in Homewood, Hazelwood, Brookline, Elliott and Lawrenceville. Those stations, which are near flood-prone areas, will have boats available to rescuers. Police officers and paramedics also volunteered for the training.

“With Washington Boulevard, we had no advance warning,” Huss said. “We have to be able to go at a moment's notice.”

The trainees, wearing dry suits, special boots, gloves, personal flotation devices and helmets, learned defensive swimming, how to work in a team to rescue simulated victims, how to move from fast-moving to calmer waters and other skills during the day-long exercise.

“We teach people to work smarter, not harder,” said Sgt. Thomas Huerbin, one of the instructors. “It's not like swimming in a pool; you're swimming to save your life, basically.”

Plenty of the students learned the creek was aptly named, as they slipped and slid over treacherous rocks in the water and along the shoreline. Still, many said they were happy to be learning the skills.

“This is an awesome program,” Firefighter David Cunningham said. “When you have someone drowning in a city street and you're not trained, it's the worst feeling in the world.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 ormharding@tribweb.com.

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