Hovercraft could aid river rescue

City seeks grant from Homeland Security

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Pittsburgh residents may see an emergency hovercraft zipping across the tops of the three rivers this summer.

The city is seeking a Department of Homeland Security grant to buy a new hovercraft that will allow river rescue personnel to address two problems: how to safely approach riverbanks without puncturing their regular boats and how to deploy during water emergencies when the rivers are iced.

The four-seat hovercraft would help rescuers in searches for dead bodies and assist in river rescue's regular work, mostly in the summertime, in responding to disabled boats, broken-free barges and security patrols, the city's deputy emergency management director Ray Demichiei said.

"In some places you may not be able to get within 20 or 30 yards of the shoreline before the existing boats bottom out," he said. The hovercraft "can drive right off the water right up onto the shore."

In the winter the crafts can travel across ice. Emergency personnel now can break through ice but have trouble performing rescue operations from their vessels.

The hovercraft costs about $100,000 and would be covered by a $267,532 grant agreement with the federal government. The grant also would pay for new engines for the bureau's two regular river rescue boats. Since the city is responsible for 25 percent of the costs, it will pay $66,883.

"There's not much to it," Mr. Demichiei said of the hovercraft. "It's a fiberglass shell, a skirt, and some motors and a fan for a compressor that elevates it, and a steering mechanism. It's pretty straightforward."

The federal funds can only be used for port security, which is why they're being applied to river needs as opposed to police, fire or other public safety vehicles, Mr. Demichiei noted.

If the grant is processed by its March 31 deadline and personnel are fully trained, the hovercraft could be deployed by mid-summer.


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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