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May 17, 2011

Pa. rescue unit to get innovative disaster vehicle

By Chuck Biedka
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — For a few nervous moments a few weeks ago, a terse afternoon 911 call was gut-wrenching for Pete Frejkowski and other rescue workers.

A Leechburg Area school district bus with about 15 fourth-through-eighth-graders on board ? was rear-ended in West Leechburg.

"Fortunately, no one was hurt. But there could have been many, many injuries. And if that happened, we really could have used the MERV," said Frejkowski, chief of Lower Kiski Emergency Services. MERV stands for medical evacuation and rehab vehicle.

By the end of the month, Lower Kiski at Kiski Avenue, Leechburg, is slated to get a $405,000 specialized bus that will be a first for the state, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA.)

The specialized bus will help local emergency crews handle multi-casualty wrecks, domestic disasters or even terrorism. The bus will handle 18 stretcher patients. It will also have basic medical monitors, medical oxygen, tie-downs on the walls for hospital equipment, and a small kitchen and bathroom.

Nursing home evacuations and the Murrysville gas leak are two examples of when the bus would be used, said Randy Brozenick, who directs Armstrong County's public safety department. He submitted the application to the Pittsburgh-based Region 13 Hazards and Counterterrorism Task Force. That review took three years.

"The bus can also be set up as an emergency room in case there is a hospital's emergency room is overwhelmed," he said.

"Firefighter rehab is another important job for the vehicle," Frejkowski added.

Lower Kiski was selected for three reasons: staffing, location and record.

Staffing is, in fact, a major reason Lower Kiski is getting the bus.

"They have the staff and they have agreed to staff it 24-7," said Region 13 member and Westmoreland County emergency services spokesman Dan Stevens. "Other counties in the region don't feel they have the manpower."

Frejkowski said Lower Kiski has enough medics and drivers because about 40 percent of Lower Kiski's members are volunteers and there is a low turnover. He hopes the new equipment will encourage even more people to volunteer.

Lower Kiski also has a certified mechanic who already does routine maintenance for its other vehicles.The unit already has a suitable garage.

Lower Kiski will pay for bus maintenance, and some money will come from Armstrong County, Frejkowski said.

Thomas J. McElree, executive director and legal counsel for the state's Emergency Medical Services Institute, said the unit's record and location are key reasons why the EMSI voted for it at the Region 13 review.

"Lower Kiski is one of the most active components in our EMS strike team that has gone three times to Louisiana," McElree said.

"Lower Kiski staff are highly motivated and the vehicle is so much of a good idea that I hope we can find the money for another one," McElree said

Basing the bus at Leechburg is good decision, he said.

From Leechburg, drivers can easily access Allegheny, Butler, Indiana and Westmoreland counties as well as northern and eastern counties, he said. "It's not an isolated location," he said.

McElree said the medical evacuation and rehab bus should have a useful life of about 20 years compared to a much shorter operational life for an ambulance.

In addition to its local mission, the bus can be adapted to send a self-contained team of paramedics to the scene of a disaster like New York at 9/11 or New Orleans during Katrina, Frejkowski said. "We sent crews to Louisiana and to Texas for disasters and we'll help whenever we can. And who knows about terrorism events?" he asked.

But the bus will be primarily available across the 13 counties of western Pennsylvania and city of Pittsburgh, although it could go elsewhere in the state if PEMA requests it, said Robert Full, PEMA's chief deputy director and the long-time Allegheny County emergency services director who led the Region 13 task force for more than 12 years.

"There is a population of 3.2 million in Region 13. That's more than in some states," Full said.

"The Alle-Kiski Valley has Allegheny Ludlum and there could be some type of unfortunate industrial accident. There are also a lot of highways and rail traffic. I also remember some fires in senior citizen highrises. This vehicle would be used instead of sending five or more ambulances," he said.

"Alle-Kiski ambulances would be able to respond to local heart attack and other calls instead of making those people wait for an extended period of time. Having ambulances available for other things is important," Full said.

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