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Bill to create second Pa. USAR team passes Senate

Legislation to create and place a second team in Allegheny County moves to the House


Members of PA-TF-1 conducting refresher training on various tools.

Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1/Facebook

By Ford Turner
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The concept of a high-level urban search-and-rescue team based in Allegheny County moved forward on Wednesday as a bill approving the plan passed the Senate in Harrisburg. Emergency services officials were optimistic the long-desired team might eventually become a reality.

Brian Kokkila, assistant chief for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire and a regional search-and-rescue task force leader, was in the Capitol to watch the Senate pass the bill unanimously. It now goes to the House for consideration.

“It sustains and codifies something that should have happened 20 years ago,” Mr. Kokkila said.

A top-level, federally funded team already is based in Philadelphia, but none exists in Western Pennsylvania. The bill sponsored by Sen. Devlin Robinson, R- Allegheny, gives the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency a key role in creating the Allegheny-based team, and it could require state funding.

“I certainly see the need for the team,” said McKeesport Fire Chief Jeffrey Tomovcsik, second vice president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association. “It is unfortunate we do not have a team in this end of the state.”

For many lawmakers, the need was illustrated vividly by the Jan. 28, 2022, collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. There were no deaths, but since search-and-rescue assets in the area did not have specially trained canine units, it took hours to make that determination.

The Philadelphia-based unit is classified “Type 1" under Federal Emergency Management Agency standards and is run entirely with federal money. Mr. Robinson’s bill calls for the one in Allegheny County to meet “Type 3" requirements — having about half the personnel and resources of a Type 1 team — and it might require state funding.

A Senate projection said PEMA determined a new team in Allegheny County could have $19 million in initial startup costs and ongoing annual costs of $4 million to $5 million.

However, PEMA is studying how the assets of the existing “Strike Team 1" in Western Pennsylvania — led by Mr. Kokkila — could be transitioned into a Type 3 task force. Using existing equipment and assets would lower the price tag for a new, higher-level team. Grant programs also may help with costs.

“We have a team of very dedicated folks,” Mr. Kokkila said of the region’s current arrangement. “They are underequipped and under-sustained.”

He said the region has no dogs that are trained to search collapsed buildings. “Urban search-and-rescue canines are trained differently, and they work differently than a wilderness dog,” he said.

Such dogs are “one of the things that comes with” a Type 3 team, he said.

The finances of the proposal are sure to get close scrutiny in the House. In December, a similar bill passed the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, where Rep. Mark Gillen, R- Berks, is the minority chairman.

The Senate bill, he said, has more ambitious spending than the House bill. And, he said, “I don’t think the dollars are well defined in the Senate bill.”

Mr. Tomovcsik also said finances were crucial.

Many members of his organization, he said, are from Eastern Pennsylvania fire companies that self-fund some specialty units. A concern, he said, is that state money for search and rescue is “distributed equally throughout the commonwealth.”

The bill calls for a Joint State Government Commission study of the topic, to be completed by Nov. 30.

Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel, who is also a firefighter and EMT, said his county runs planning sessions for dealing with hypothetical mass casualty events. Knowing that a high-caliber search-and-rescue team is in the region would be a big plus, he said.

“You don’t need it until you need it,” he said.

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