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Local News

Lawmakers Hear Testimony on Pennsylvania’s Urban Search and Rescue Capabilities


by Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
August 2, 2023

After Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed into a ravine one snowy morning in 2022, it took hours before authorities could confirm that no one had been killed or trapped beneath the rubble.

Pennsylvania’s only urban search and rescue team with dogs trained to locate victims of structural collapses is based in Philadelphia, about five hours from Pittsburgh.

Members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 arrived in Pittsburgh and ultimately helped local first responders determine there had been no one under the bridge when it fell, but the episode highlighted a need for greater urban search and rescue capabilities in the state’s western half.

“It was really our wake up call to say, hey, we need to be prepared,” state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, said Tuesday in a joint hearing of the state House and Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committees.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the state House and Senate would provide funding for a second urban search rescue task force for the Pittsburgh area, which emergency officials said is badly needed.

Pittsburgh Assistant Fire Chief Brian Kokkila said that while a Pittsburgh-area urban search and rescue strike team was established after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the team has not received financial support to keep it sustainable.

“Without a dedicated line item budget this initiative brings, we will be unfunded, unsupported, unstaffed and unprepared,” Kokkila said, noting that the burden of maintaining staff for the strike team falls to local governments.

“This is clearly a commonwealth issue that requires dedicated funding and demands devoted support for the responders who are prepared to meet these challenges,” Kokkila said.

Born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pennsylvania Task Force 1 is one of 28 federally-funded urban search and rescue teams across the country, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield said.

The teams provide an organized system of resources to locate, extricate and provide medical treatment to victims of disasters such as building collapses, flooding or terrorist attacks. Task Force 1, which is a unit within the Philadelphia Fire Department, can be deployed anywhere in the country or within Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania receives about $26.5 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the task force and seven other regional counter terrorism task force groups that respond to disasters only within the state, Padfield said.

Padfield said the regional teams, which are made up of local fire and rescue agencies, are able to provide a more nimble, scaled response to the types of threats that are most likely to be encountered in Pennsylvania. 

He said he questions whether the legislation to create another urban search and rescue task force is the correct approach. 

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fund the western side of the state,” Padfield said. “What I’m saying is we should find the system in totality, to be able to make sure that those resources are available to every resident in the commonwealth within a timely manner.”

Philadelphia Fire Capt. Ken Pagurek, program manager for Pennsylvania Task Force 1, said Task Force 1 routinely responds to incidents in southeast Pennsylvania such as the gas explosion at a Berks County chocolate factory that killed seven people in March and the flash flooding this month in Bucks County, where six people died.

Without equal funding for urban search and rescue resources across the state, Pagurek said there could be a perception that lives in some areas are worth less when people die due to a lack of rescue capability.

“If it was a perfect world, the checkbook was open, I would fund the entire program so that it was one unified system within the commonwealth,” Pagurek said.

The bills must be voted out of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committees before being considered in their respective chambers.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.