Rescue training pays off during flooding in Pittsburgh

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Heavy flooding and thunderstorms that doused the South Hills on Wednesday provided Pittsburgh police, firefighters and paramedics with a chance to use training put into place after the 2011 Washington Boulevard flood that killed four people.

On Wednesday, first-responders used a tiered-approach to respond to calls of people stranded in water or trapped on top of cars caught in the deluge.

Unlike in 2011, every member of the police, fire or EMS bureau has received basic training on the dangers of fast-moving water and has been given personal flotation devices and other gear for responding to more minor calls.

Those first-responders can now call on one of the roughly 200 people trained in more advanced techniques last month or on the bureaus' swift water rescue teams.

The result, public safety officials said, is a quicker response time that helps reduce the number of injuries to residents and to public safety crews. No major injuries were reported in Allegheny County because of the floods.

"It was much different," public safety director Michael Huss said of Wednesday's response. "I think that the awareness that we've all gained, and all of our police officers, firefighters and paramedics have gained has increased our level of alertness."

About 20 members of swift water rescue teams from the city police, fire and EMS bureaus worked throughout the day.

City workers performed more than a dozen rescues Wednesday, all during the morning hours. Some were done by members of swift water rescue teams, others by street officers, firefighters and medics who received the basic training.

Sgt. Barry Budd, who oversees water rescue operations for the police bureau, said he was called about 8:30 a.m. to the 1600 block of Route 51 for a report of a man who was driving a small, two-door car that had become stranded in water.

When he arrived, Officers Richard O'Neil and Don Savko were talking to the man and trying to keep him calm. They instructed the man not to move off the roof of the car.

Sgt. Budd, who was performing his first in-water rescue of that kind, strapped on his gear and made his way toward the man. He tossed the man a personal flotation device and a line and helped to pull him in.

"The decision to go out and get him at that point was kind of critical" because the car was still moving away, the sergeant said.

Public safety officials quickly shut down troublesome roads and kept them closed throughout the day.

In the evening, one of the four-man crews -- two with a car towing a boat and two in another vehicle -- were stationed at Technology Drive. They spent part of the night moving around the city at the direction of Mr. Huss or following their own judgment based off chatter they heard on the police scanner.

Because of the road closures, they didn't have to perform a single rescue that night.

"It's just like anything else they say about combat," said Lt. Pat Shaw, who coordinates water rescue efforts for the fire bureau. "It's 23 hours and 50 minutes of boredom, [followed] by 10 minutes of complete fear, terror and adrenaline rush."

Allegheny County crews worked similarly, starting at 6:20 a.m. and leaving about 9:20 p.m. They rescued six people and two animals. Teams were stationed throughout the county in anticipation of flooding and then deployed as calls came in.

"It worked so well it's almost scary," said George McBriar, coordinator of Allegheny County swift water flood response team. "Even the local departments that are not necessarily water rescue personnel did a really nice job keeping everyone safe."

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Liz Navratil:, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.


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