Aug. 14--Their work is highly visible: Recovering three bodies in the Allegheny River within a month, dousing boat fires, containing an oil slick and saving stranded motorists in a flash flood.
Now, their work is highly recognized as the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently certified Allegheny County first responders in flood management and swift water rescue with a 1A rating.
It's the highest rating possible -- and the only such ranking of a water rescue unit in the state.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in specialized equipment and a high number of trained first responders account for the elite ranking in swift water rescue, according to Scott Grahn, an instructor trainer for the Fish and Boat Commission in Somerset County.
The Allegheny County team is a patchwork of volunteer fire companies blending with paid emergency response units from Pittsburgh.
It has been a tremendous undertaking to train and coordinate mostly volunteer firefighters from numerous towns. It took six years to accrue the specialized rescue boats, including two personal watercrafts that can easily maneuver and clock 75 mph in any water condition.
Such equipment and personnel are in demand: When Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee pounded eastern Pennsylvania in 2011, the Region 13 team assisted, tallying 64 rescues and 123 evacuations, according to Grahn.
"Training saves time, money and lives," he said.
About 110 volunteers from nearby counties and paid emergency responders descended on Bell Harbor Yacht Club in O'Hara for practice rescue drills on the Allegheny River on Saturday to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season and flash flooding.
"These drills are so important mainly because we never know when we will be called to services, whether it's on a swollen river or flash flooding on a creek," said George McBriar, Allegheny County's swift water senior team leader and chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company.
Familiarity with other water rescue personnel and knowing the same procedures are essential, according to Grahn.
"The key thing is uniformity so everyone is doing the same thing," he said.
The technology and sophisticated response was evident less than a few weeks ago when water rescue teams from Allegheny and Armstrong counties and New Kensington found the body of a Freeport man whose suicidal leap from the Tarentum Bridge brought in specialized equipment such as side sonar, thermal imaging and skilled divers.
"It's a junkyard down there in the river," McBriar said.
Littered with cars, chunks of concrete, and other debris amid vegetation, the river is a difficult and dangerous place to recover a body.
In the old days, rescue workers dragged grappling hooks on the river bottom, said Alvin Henderson Jr., chief of Allegheny County Emergency Services who co-chairs Region 13's Maritime Water Rescue Committee with Grahn.
Just a decade ago, when Hurricane Ivan hit, Henderson said, "We had canoes and johnboats and we were wearing firefighter bunker gear that could drown us," he said.
Now responders are outfitted in $1,700 water suits that are airtight to prevent contamination and outfitted with specialized safety harnesses that can release if a first responder is dragged underwater.
Then there is the Creature Craft, which resides with Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company. It's the only inflatable boat in the state that is designed to operate against a dam wall.
And as murky as the local rivers can get, that doesn't stop Henderson from viewing the river bottom remotely, with volunteer crews using sonar, thermal imaging and an underwater video camera.
But that's only the equipment, Henderson said.
"What makes our team unique," he said, "is the dedication of the individual ready to go into an emergency situation."
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4691.
Copyright 2014 - The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa.