(The Center Square) — Against the advice of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the General Assembly is moving forward on creating a search and rescue team in the western part of the state, modeled on an existing federally funded team in Philadelphia.
Though PEMA worried that such a force would detract from the already-existing team, legislators see it as a prudent way to reduce response times to disasters.
“With the size and population of the Pittsburgh region, it is necessary to have a well-trained and properly equipped search and rescue task force on this side of the commonwealth,” Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Pittsburgh, said Wednesday during a Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee meeting. Robinson introduced the bill, Senate Bill 792, with Sen. Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh.
He pointed to a number of recent disasters in the commonwealth, such as an apartment building collapse in Washington County, a factory explosion in West Reading, the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, and the East Palestine train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
A second team, the senator argued, would benefit Philadelphia’s team.
“(It) would significantly ease the burden on Pennsylvania Task Force 1,” Robinson said. “No funds or resources will be taken away from any other fire department — including the Philadelphia PA task force.”
A main concern was the time it takes for the existing task force to get to the western and northern parts of the state in an emergency — which can take hours.
“One of the things that is really important here is that we recognize the value of time,” Costa said. “Time is of the essence.”
The committee advanced the bill, reporting it as committed, by a vote of 8-2, with Sens. Cris Dush, R-Bellefonte, and Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, voting no.
During an August hearing, PEMA Director Randy Padfield advised against the bill, as The Center Square previously reported.
“While I think it makes a perfect addition to the capabilities in the west, it also potentially detracts from the capabilities across the rest of the state for residents,” Padfield said.
Instead, he suggested reviewing the existing emergency response system to “refresh” the state’s urban search and rescue capabilities.