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Blawnox Fire Hall Bids Awarded

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
December 20, 2010
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Blawnox Council awarded about $1.2 million to four contractors to build a new fire hall to replace the cramped quarters in the 71-year-old borough building and fire hall on Freeport Road.

Council took out a $2.8 million municipal bond earlier this year to pay for a total renovation of the borough building and to draw down some old debt.

But when bids came in too high this summer, borough officials scrapped the project and instead decided just to build the fire hall next to the existing borough building and then renovate the borough building with the remaining money.

Council voted unanimously for the following service contract awards:

• Tomlyn Construction, LLC, Bakerstown, general contactor, $978,500.
• Norris Plumbing, Tarentum, plumbing contractor, $71,200.
• L&F Electric, Pittsburgh, electrical contractor, $119,500.
• Three-Rivers Mechanical, Aliquippa, HVAC and mechanical contractor, $66,798.

The two-phase construction and remodeling process will continue throughout 2011. Construction of the fire station is set to begin around March 1 and be completed by Dec. 1.

Blawnox Firefighters Certified to Respond to Federal, State Water Disasters

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
October 14, 2010
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Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company water rescue earned a special certification making the unit eligible to respond to federal and state water-related disasters.

It is the only water rescue unit in the state with such a certification, according to emergency officials.

"Hopefully we are going to be able to provide a level of service that wasn't available to us prior to this training," said George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company.

The certification is from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and the Office of the State Fire Commissioner. It enables the federal and state emergency management agencies to deploy the Blawnox unit for swift-water rescue and to assist other agencies during floods.

After a cluster of local volunteer departments showed up to assist in the Bloomsburg flood in 2006, state emergency officials realized that they needed some criteria to determine the capabilities of the volunteer water rescue units.

"They had to come up with certifications and equipment needs meaning boats, dry suits and they had to make sure people were property trained," said Scott Grahn, an instructor/trainer for swift water rescue for Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "Blawnox was the first one to step up to the plate," he said.

Most volunteer companies can qualify for moving people out of houses during a flood, he said, "but if we get into faster moving water, there are very few people with that certification."

The new accreditation allows Blawnox water rescue unit to assist in natural disasters on the order of magnitude as a Hurricane Katrina, according to McBriar.

"The commitment from the guys is a big thing," he said.

About 16 Blawnox volunteer firefighters have put in more than 160 hours of training plus weekly or monthly rescue drills in the field.

And for the certification, the unit has been outfitted with the necessary rescue equipment, from the drysuits to the boats to the life jackets.

During the last several years, with help from the state government and Blawnox Borough, the water rescue unit has acquired a 24-foot pontoon boat outfitted with a pumper that can spray water up to 40 yards, a speed boat, two high-powered jet skis and an inflatable rescue boat.

Locally, the unit's rescue work included retrieving the body of woman found floating by a pleasure craft on the Penn Hills side of Allegheny River this summer and the bodies of two fishermen who died near the dam in Harmar in April.

The unit responded to about 14 calls this summer for boats in distress and body recovery, according to McBriar.

Blawnox chose to make water rescue it's specialty, he said.

Although the volunteer fire department has been involved in water rescue for many years, it has only beefed up the water rescue capabilities in the last several years.

‘It was a need," McBriar said.

"All the departments in the Valley are equipped for vehicle rescue," he said. "We can get vehicle rescue from mutual aid, so we wanted to provide a service that wasn't a duplication of what others were providing."

And given Blawnox's proximity to the Allegheny River and communities that flood, water rescue seemed like a natural void to fill, he said.

Dangers of Water Rescue on Display During Local Training Exercises

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
August 5, 2010
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More than 200 firefighters and other emergency personnel converged in the O'Hara and Blawnox section of the Allegheny River valley for water rescue drills on Saturday.

Emergency crews from 10 counties, which are part of Region 13 Homeland Security Task Force, participated in the exercises hosted by Region 13 and the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company water rescue unit.

Specialized inflatable rescue boats and florescent-jacketed firefighters in protective helmets took to the water for the drills where "PFD," personal flotation device, was the favored acronym.

"Water rescue is very dangerous," said Brian Melcer, director of public safety for Lawrence County and chairman of Region 13 water response committee.

He pointed to the death of a firefighter who perished during rescue operations in West Virginia this past spring.

During floods and other water disasters, rescuers who show up in boats need hours of training and specialized equipment.

"Whether it's Millvale or New Castle that's under water, it's not just emergency crews from those towns showing up," said Melcer."It's all of us."

Although there are a number of water rescue units in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Region 13 Homeland Security grouping aims to better coordinate the rescue services and specialized equipment, according to Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Bob Full, who is also chairman of Region 13.

Saturday's large turnout of water rescuers from Greene, Somerset, Indiana and other counties bodes well for those services.

"I admire the get commitment and expertise assembled here today," Full said.

George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox fire company and water rescue unit said, "The attendance today exceeds expectations."

Crews navigated around a slalom ski course that challenged their maneuvering skills for dodging debris in swift waters.

Another drill, "snatch and grab," helped emergency responders hone their abilities to rescue a victim in floodwaters.

Such training is necessary for emergency responders to rescue someone from a house or a car during a flood, according to Scott Grahn of Somerset County, an instructor and trainer in water rescue for the state Fish and Boat Commission.

Having the right emergency gear like a PFD is essential. Even the boats are geared for safety.

For example, many of the rescue boats have a "pump jet," which is a protective cylinder around the boat's propeller to prevent further injury in the water.

"This training saves time, money and lives," Grahn said.

Blawnox Fire Company Hosts River Rescue Event

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
July 29, 2010
Story Link

Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company water rescue unit will help host Allegheny County's first large scale water rescue exercise for the Region 13 Homeland Security Task Force on Saturday in the Blawnox portion of the Allegheny River.

Emergency personnel from eight to 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties are expected to participate in water rescue drills just off of Sycamore Island, which will serve as a home base.

Region 13 is one of nine Homeland Security Task Forces in the state and was most recently activated for security for the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last September.

"We'll see teams coming together, working together, sharing experience and knowledge to be better prepared to use their skills to save someone in a flash flood or another water emergency," said Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Bob Full, who is also chairman of Region 13.

Although the Region 13 Task Force was set up with a Homeland Security mission, the emergency responders are trained for all types of hazardous events. "We have a lot of critical assets on our waterways to secure," he said referring to the four rivers, numerous marinas, drinking water sources and industries.

"Since we don't' have a terrorist attack everyday," Full said, "We recognize being an all-hazard organization that we're good for other things like storms and chemical spills."

Full is assessing the capabilities and equipment available for flooding and other water-related emergencies throughout the region.

During Hurricane Ivan in 2004 when 95 municipalities in the region were under states of emergency, Full had to secure extra help for water rescue equipment and personnel in the first 24 hours of the emergency.

"It was unbelievable to me that the waters could come up so quick. All those streams throughout Allegheny County had come up and we needed every boat," Full said.

"We had to put in requests to surrounding counties for help," he said. "We were rescuing people out of cars, trees, second floors and we had boat crews from as far away as Johnston, Fayette and Mercer counties. That was a real wake-up call," Full said.

Given the spread-out resources for water rescue several years ago, it wasn't surprising that Blawnox Volunteer Fire Co., which has been providing river rescue for 12 years, beefed up its capabilities with more training and new equipment over that last three years.

Other than City of Pittsburgh, Blawnox has the largest river rescue unit in the county, which now includes five boats and 17 personnel certified in water rescue, according to George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company and a board member of Region 13's water rescue committee.

The borough's water rescue unit fields more than dozen water rescue and emergency calls a year, McBriar said.

Most recently, the Blawnox unit retrieved the body of woman found floating by a pleasure craft on the Penn Hills side of river last Wednesday. The Blawnox unit also found the bodies of the two fishermen who died near the dam in Harmarville in April.

The Blawnox water rescue volunteers ran a practice of the watercourse last week to prepare for the training event this Saturday.

The course includes a slalom ski area that requires a boat operator and a passenger to navigate around obstacles.

Although it sounds similar to the recreational slalom skiing, it's not sport. Emergency responders have to be able to maneuver around and avoid, say, floating cars or debris during a real flood, McBriar said.

Emergency crews will also practice transferring personnel from one boat to another — not an easy task in raging floodwaters.

"It's actually a trained thing," said McBriar whose volunteer staff travels around the state for water rescue seminars and drills.

Another important exercise is what McBriar calls the "body roll." Crews will practice using a net to hoist someone from the water to a rescue boat.

"It's difficult to get a body out of the water, alive or dead," McBriar remarked.

Saturday's training exercise will provide a refresher course to emergency responders.

"We're looking for them to practice to use the rescue skills that they learned may have not used recently," McBriar said. "And for us, we will be able to practice our skills in working with other rescue units who have the same training, but we've never worked together before," he said.

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