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Need Rises For Skilled River Rescue Squads In Region

Valley News Dispatch
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Reporter
July 25, 2012
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The hotter it gets, the busier George McBriar gets.

“As recreation increases on area rivers, so do the mishaps,” said McBriar, coordinator of the Allegheny County Swiftwater/Flood Response Team and chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company, which has its own water rescue squad.

The call volume for river rescues on the Allegheny River alone is up 15 percent to 20 percent, according to McBriar.

Typically, the Blawnox company gets a dozen calls during the boating season. That volume is up to 18 to 20 already.

Many calls are for boats in distress.

“Sometimes, their motor dies and they are getting too close to the dam,” McBriar said.

Many of the accidents involve inexperienced boaters and mechanical problems with water craft, he said.

Locally, the Allegheny County rescue team, made up of nine member departments — including the City of Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit and volunteer fire departments from Blawnox, Tarentum and Etna — was established more than three years ago.

The need for dedicated water rescue teams surfaced when Allegheny County had to secure extra help for water rescue equipment and personnel in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan when 95 municipalities were under states of emergency.

“The need for water rescue is increasing as we take a look at our three rivers,” said Alvin Henderson, chief of Allegheny County’s Department of Emergency Services.

“We’ve always had substantial barge traffic moving commodities,” he said. “And we’ve become a Mecca for recreational boats.”

Water rescue units are increasingly called on to pull boaters out of the water, help watercraft in distress and rescue flood victims.

The Allegheny team was called out when an Aliquippa woman died when she was a passenger on a personal watercraft that went over the Dashields Dam on the Ohio River in Edgeworth in late June.

The Blawnox company recently was called on to bring up a submerged vehicle that had drifted into the river in Oakmont.

To be ready for the calls when they come takes training and practice.

More than 140 water rescuers from area counties, including Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland, Somerset and Cambria, will take part in practice drills on Saturday in the O’Hara and Blawnox portions of the Allegheny River.

All of the rescuers and their respective paid or volunteer units are part of the Region 13 Homeland Security Task Force.

Preparation is everything for the team, which was on alert during the heavy rains last week.

They were ready to launch rescue boats at a moment’s notice for flash floods anywhere in the region.

Besides honing rescue skills, the training session later this week will help rescuers work in sync during an emergency.

“This gets all the people working together,” McBriar said.

“Because when you’re out on these rescue calls, you may end up working with someone from Westmoreland County or elsewhere and you have to standardize your training and practices.”

New Firefighters' Facility Features Room For All of Blawnox's Equipment

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
December 15, 2011
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More than 200 people attended the dedication of the $1.2 million Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company station, next to the borough building at 376 Freeport Road.

Blawnox firefighters turned out in their dress white uniforms and dedicated the new, 4,900-square foot brick building, along with the town's mayor, borough council, state lawmakers, area fire chiefs and emergency personnel from throughout the region.

The fire department has been shoehorned in an outdated and small fire station in the 72-year-old borough building.

A small parcel of land was purchased in the mid-1970s next to the borough building for a new fire station, which has been discussed for years.

Last year, borough council took the plunge for a bond issue to pay for, among other things, the new fire station.

Mayor Tom Smith said, at Sunday's dedication ceremony, a final decision to build the station came "after a lot of thinking and deliberation about the future of fire protection for our residents and the safety of our firefighters."

The crowd gave a standing ovation to the members of the volunteer fire department during the ceremony.

Borough officials installed a commemorative plaque at the fire station building while fire company President John Lattimore and Chief George McBriar presented a plaque of appreciation to borough council and the mayor.

Also present were State Rep. Anthony DeLuca, Scot Frankowski from Sen. Jim Ferlo's office, Alvin Henderson, acting chief of Emergency Services for Allegheny County and area fire chiefs.

"We love working with departments from the Allegheny Valley," said McBriar.

"They help us and we help them," he said, "I hope that they share in the enjoyment of the building."

Bill Peoples, fire chief of Oakmont Volunteer Fire Department, was at the ceremony and said that there aren't many new fire stations these days and mutual aid is important.

"We work closely with Blawnox with water rescue and we have a 75-foot ladder truck. When they ask us, we come," Peoples said.

The station is roomy with three bays, lockers, two restrooms, a radio room, office space and a social room.

Instead of having equipment scattered in three locations, the fire station will house one fire engine, two squad trucks, two boat trailers, four boats and other equipment.

A number of local businesses and patrons kicked in more than $15,000 to equip the social room with a kitchen, pool table, television, microwave and other amenities.

"It keeps the people at the station," McBriar said. "It's quicker to have them here and it's important for them to socialize, too, and to be ready to go."

Blawnox Fire Hall Construction Rolls Along

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
August 3, 2011
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The brick walls of the new fire station in Blawnox are going up fast.

The station is part of a $1.8 million renovation project of the aging borough building along Freeport Road.

The new garage will give what firefighters say is much-needed space for what they now describe as being cramped quarters.

The fire station, a stand-alone building next to the two-story, brick borough office, could be finished in early November, according to Bill Cook of the architectural firm JC Pierce in Pittsburgh.

So far, contractors have poured the slabs and the masonry is going up, Cook told borough council during its regular meeting last week.

“This is the fast part of construction, “ he said.

Council will later decide on the scope of renovations for the borough building after the costs are finalized for the garage.

Blawnox Hosts Training Event For Rescue Near River Dams

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
May 5, 2011
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Emergency crews trained on the only rescue boat in the state that can float against a dam wall last week at the Allegheny River dam in Highland Park.

The exercise was hosted by the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company, which bought the boat to add to its water rescue fleet, and the Allegheny County Swift Water and Flood Response Team.

Known as a Creature Craft, the inflatable boat is designed to stay afloat in turbulent waters at the bottom of a dam.

Since a number of boating accidents occur at dams, the vessel is a valuable addition for local emergency services, said George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company and coordinator of Allegheny County's Swift Water and Flood Response Team.

The new rescue boat is one of a kind in the state, according to Darren Vancil, owner and designer of the Creature Craft, a company based in Grand Junction, Colo.

Vancil came to town to help area emergency responders learn how to maneuver the new boat, which will fill a void for rescue workers, according to McBriar.

"What makes the boat special is it is designed to go into a low head dam to provide rescue and the boat doesn't roll over," McBriar said.

The $14,000 boat was paid for by a state firefighters grant and the Blawnox fire company.

Close to 50 rescue workers, many of whom are on the county water rescue team, stopped by for the training exercises over the weekend.

The team was formed about a year ago to pull together and coordinate water rescue services throughout the region.

After Hurricane Ivan, emergency mangers realized that special flood-trained personnel and equipment with local volunteer fire departments was spotty.

"We identified the need to better coordinate swift water and flood resources," said Alvin Henderson Jr., acting chief of emergency services for Allegheny County.

"Floods are a time-sensitive event and we have to be ready to deploy crews to areas where they are needed," he said.

The county Swift Water and Flood Rescue Team has about seven teams that cover each of the region's three rivers. Each team has special rescue equipment and training to deal with floods and other water emergencies.

Recently, the team was called out for a safety detail with breakaway barges on the Ohio River near Neville Island.

New Craft Will Aid Blawnox Water-Rescue Efforts to Save Lives

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
April 28, 2011
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The Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company will host three days of training seminars on a rescue boat that can be stationed next to an active dam.

Volunteer and paid emergency responders from throughout Allegheny County will take part in the training sessions Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the Allegheny River at the dam at Highland Park in Pittsburgh.

Crews will use Sharpsburg's 13th Street boat ramp to reach the dam site.

The new rescue vessel, a Creature Craft, will be the only rescue boat in the region that can navigate the dangerous waters and hydraulics at a dam.

"This is a first-of-it's-kind boat that can save lives during a number of boating accidents, especially near the dams, where the hydraulics typically draw in a boat," said George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company and coordinator of Allegheny County's Swift Water and Flood Response Team.

Other than the city of Pittsburgh, Blawnox has the largest river-rescue unit in the county, which now includes six boats and more than 17 personnel certified in water rescue.

Blawnox responds to many water emergencies throughout the region, including flooding, boating accidents and body recovery.

"Up until now, we have not been able to take a boat up against a dam wall," McBriar said.

The capability, he said, is crucial because a number of distressed boats can get caught up in the hydraulics of the water at the dams. The Creature Craft vessel has an inflatable roll cage system that prevents rescuers from falling into the water.

"Since Allegheny County has dams everywhere and no one had this, we moved forward with it," McBriar said.

The inflatable boat can be transported to any disaster scene.

The $14,000 boat was paid for by a state firefighters grant and the Blawnox fire company.

New Fire Hall Will Give Needed Space

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
April 7, 2011
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Blawnox public officials broke ground for a new fire station last week.

Contractors are already at work on the $1.2 million fire station being constructed next to the Blawnox borough building along Freeport Road and are scheduled to finish the building later this year.

For George McBriar, the chief of Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company, the wait has been long but he never doubted that the town would some day see a new fire station.

Quarters are so cramped in the fire station, which was built in 1939 along with the rest of the borough building, that a man cannot fit between the front garage door and the engine.

Firefighters have to walk sideways to scrunch between the side of the engine and station wall.

"The overriding point of the whole building as far as I'm concerned is the safety of it," McBriar said.

"We've had people pinched between the truck and the wall and we've had mishaps between the squad car and the engine."

The new fire garage, which will be twice as big as the original station, will house the company's fire engine, two squad trucks, a squad car, four river rescue boats and equipment.

The volunteer fire company responds to about 250 fire calls a year, another 70 calls for emergency assistance and about 20 calls a year for river and water rescue.

Construction Start Nears For New Fire Hall

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
March 3, 2011
Story Link

Contractors soon will begin construction of the $1.2 million new fire department building at the Blawnox Borough building along Freeport Road.

The building is part of an expansion project to add space to the cramped quarters of the 71-year-old borough building.

A two-phase construction and remodeling process is planned.

Among the first orders of business is the demolition of the old salt shed on the borough building site.

Work begins March 25.

Then, work crews will start driving piles for the foundation of the new fire department building.

Because the foundation work will create vibrations, nine nearby property owners were offered free, preconstruction surveys.

"We can document the condition of their buildings before construction, so if there are concerns about the (impact) of the construction, we can compare information," said Bill Cook, a project manager for the architectural firm JC Pierce in Bellevue.

Throughout the driving process, expected to be sporadic during a two-week time frame this spring, subcontractors will measure the vibrations so as not to "exceed a safe threshold," Cook said.

About half of the property owners agreed to the surveys, he said.

Completion of the building is set for Nov. 1.

Blawnox Water Rescue Crews Recover A Woman's Body From the Allegheny River

Valey News Dispatch
By Chuck Biedka
March 2, 2011
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Officials are trying to identify a woman whose partially submerged body was found in the Allegheny River yesterday morning near a slip at the Bell Harbor Yacht Club.

Police said there was no sign of injury or assault, but the body was mud-covered and had been in the water "quite some time," according to O'Hara police Superintendent James Farringer.

One possibility that investigators are considering is that the body washed down the swift-flowing river following Monday morning's heavy rains.

Farringer said his department is working with Allegheny County detectives and the county medical examiner to identify the woman.

The woman was fully clothed, Farringer said. She didn't have a purse or other identification.

The docks where she was found are at 1 River Road. Farringer said that is roughly at the 9.5-mile marker along the river from Point State Park in Pittsburgh.

Farringer said the woman's body was found by a caretaker, John Chiado, who lives on a boat less than 100 feet away.

"I saw what looked like a coat. It was a three-quarter's length brown or brown checked coat," Chiado said. "I got a 2-by-4 and I touched it and found out it was solid beneath the coat. So I held the board there and called the police."

While he waited for police to arrive, Chiado was hoping against hope.

"I kept saying to myself, maybe it was a Halloween decoration or a dummy," Chiado said. "You know, I find TVs, beer barrel, everything next to my boat.

"I was hoping maybe it wasn't a person, but it was."

Shocked, Chiado walked away to his boat as soon as police and firefighters arrived.

"I didn't even know it was a woman until you told me," Chiado said. "I feel bad for her."

Trapped between dock and boat

The woman's body was found in the water across from the bow of the Lady Elaine cabin cruiser.

"It was half under the dock and hung up on the cables and electrical wires," Chiado said. "Some of the folks have cable TV on their boats."

Six volunteers, including Guyasuta firefighters and the Blawnox water rescue unit, put on special protective suits and used a small rubber boat to reach the body. They carefully placed her inside an inflatable stokes basket and then brought the body about 40 feet to shore.

The body was taken by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's staff for identification and an autopsy.

An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman at Pittsburgh said the river there was recorded at 16.3 feet deep at 3 p.m. at O'Hara, just below the 17-foot flood stage.

But corps estimated that the water was flowing five times faster than normal.

In October 2003, a woman's body was found in the river near what then was the construction site of Chapel Harbor at the Water. That body was wrapped in a blanket bound with duct tape.

The body was never claimed or identified, and the case was never solved.

Police seek help.

The body of woman of unknown age found in the Allegheny River was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and about 110 to 120 pounds. She may have dark, shoulder-length hair.

She wore a brown winter coat and bluejeans.

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