Practice makes perfect

Local EMS takes lead role in homeland security task force team

NorthWest EMS water rescue team chief Matt McDanel (second from right in the white helmet) instructs a group of emergency responders from a half-dozen organizations that have come together to create a highly-trained team capable of performing any water-related rescue or operation that may arise in the region. Photo by Connie Rankin for The Citizen

Although Allegheny County is inundated with -- and perhaps defined by -- rivers and streams, there has never been an organized, cooperative effort to respond to emergencies on the area’s waterways.

Until now.

Fueled by memories of what happened during Hurricane Ivan and concerns over homeland security, the area’s first regional team has been formed to share resources and expertise to address any situation that may occur on water.

Only two existing organizations from each of the major rivers in Allegheny County -- the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela -- were chosen to work with the Region 13 Homeland Security Task Force to create this new water response team. Eventually the team will expand to include other emergency responders, according to George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Fire Department and a member of the task force board of directors.

Representing the Ohio River, along with the Crescent Township Volunteer Fire Company, is NorthWest EMS, which provides ambulance and emergency medical services to the North Boroughs, as well as having the area’s best equipped and trained technical rescue services.

The idea for the cooperative river rescue effort, in fact, is patterned to a large extent after how technical rescues are being addressed, according to NorthWest EMS chief executive officer George Dudash.

Those rare technical rescues -- from places such as collapsed tunnels and cliffsides -- proved a challenge to individual volunteer fire companies, who had neither all the equipment nor all the training, or at least not both at the same time, to address dangerous situations that rarely occurred. Nevertheless, when they do occur, experienced personnel and the right equipment are a matter of life and death.

NorthWest EMS has equipped a massive technical rescue truck and works with the area’s volunteer fire companies to incorporate their resources and cre-
ate a highly trained team that can respond to any tricky rescue demand.

The situation on the region’s waterways presented a similar predicament, driven home by the widespread flooding that occurred after Hurricane Ivan swept through the area.

“It’s a miracle nobody got killed,” said Dudash, recalling how emergency responders with little water training and even less proper equipment pulled entire families from flooded homes.

The need was clear, and NorthWest EMS immediately decided to dive in, so to speak.

The problem was that there was very little training available locally. Dudash said that the only course his personnel could attend was in swift water rescue, which typically addresses events in the rapid waters of places like Ohiopyle.

It was better than nothing, and the river was mild after the rapids, Dudash said.

“We figured that if we could handle the swift water, we could handle anything.”

As many as 16 NorthWest EMS personnel were certified in swift water rescue, and the company bought not only a 26-foot boat equipped for dive operations, but several inflatables that can be easily and quickly transported to any scene.

Until 2009, Dudash said, NorthWest EMS had one of only three certified swift water rescue teams in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- Latrobe and the City of Pittsburgh being the other two.

Along the Mon and the Allegheny, where rivers play a much larger role in recreation and residential life, volunteer fire companies were regularly responding to river emergencies, and developing a level of expertise in the effort.Glassport Fire Chief Wayne Lewis said his firefighters are called to perform river rescues about 10 times a year, and in Blawnox, where people live on their boats, McBriar says his department gets called out about a dozen times each year. Blawnox has the highest certified river rescue team in the state of Pennsylvania, McBriar said.

So the regional river rescue group was formed to evaluate and implement available resources through the county, and to augment those resources when necessary.

One of the most important aspects of the team’s work is the specialized training that now can be provided, making sure that the region has whatever is necessary to respond to any type of river emergency.

The group gathered on the banks of the Ohio, staging at the Glenfield boat launch, last Saturday for a drill that hopefully will never be recreated in reality. Not only did emergency responders face several people needing to be rescued after their boat “capsized,” but one of those people was in possession of a homemade bomb.

The scenario was the brainchild of Matt McDanel, who heads up the river rescue team for NorthWest EMS. McDanel, who started out SCUBA diving for recreation a dozen or so years ago, now spends most of his time in a wetsuit on the job for NorthWest.

The specialized drill tested the county’s ability to respond to a potential need for more than just divers and medics on the water. The Allegheny County Police bomb squad actually has certified divers, and they got the chance to test their skills in Saturday’s drill.

The drill also gave the team the opportunity to respond in less-than-perfect weather conditions, as the cold, murky waters of the river presented different challenges from the team’s first and last exercise, held this past summer in Blawnox.

Last week’s 40-degree temperatures were just the start, however. In January, the group will head for Somerset Lake to practice ice rescue.

In existence only since meetings began last spring, the Region 13 water rescue team is moving full speed ahead to be able to respond to any water-related emergency.

“This group works well together,” said McBriar.

“It’s growing and developing,” Dudash said.

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