Law Enforcement, Safety Agencies Keep Close Eye on Three Rivers during Regatta

By FitzGerald, Drew | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement, Safety Agencies Keep Close Eye on Three Rivers during Regatta


FitzGerald, Drew, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Paramedic Jeff Rongaus has fished people, weapons and even a waterlogged ATM from Pittsburgh's rivers.

"Anything you can imagine is in the river -- cars, concrete, trees," said Rongaus, a certified diver with Pittsburgh River Rescue, as he stood on deck of the agency's 30-foot SeaArk speedboat.

That's what he might find on a typical weekday.

During major events such as next weekend's Three Rivers Regatta - - when fireworks, boat races and even a tightrope walker over the Allegheny River will focus attention on the rivers -- government agencies will conduct their own high-wire act to guard restricted areas, search for drunken boaters and respond to emergencies that might arise.

Even without such events, keeping the country's second busiest inland port safe is a responsibility spanning three rivers, 225 miles of shoreline and four overlapping river safety agencies charged with protecting boaters and river infrastructure. Police officers and paramedics patrol the city's waters; state Fish and Boat Commission officers look for drunken boaters; the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary coordinate river closings.

This fall's Group of 20 summit, which will bring to Pittsburgh 19 heads of state and an estimated 3,000 journalists, will task these agencies with protecting the riverside David L. Lawrence Convention Center from potential attack while still looking out for commercial and recreational river traffic. About 38 million tons of cargo are moved by industries on the Monongahela and Ohio rivers each year.

"I don't know how much more high-profile we can get," said Ray DeMichiei, deputy director of Pittsburgh's office of emergency management. "The convention center is right next to the river. Protecting that piece of waterway is going to be very, very important."

City well-prepared

Lt. Douglas Kang of the Coast Guard's Pittsburgh Marine Safety Unit said federal officials are early in the planning process for the summit, and it could be July or August before the agencies involved develop a strategic plan.

River Rescue boats use sonar to scan bridge abutments and dams -- anything "that you should keep a close eye on" -- for suspicious boats or packages, EMS District Chief Tony Darkowski said.

The summit likely will become the most high-profile security challenge in Pittsburgh's history, but the city has taken steps before to guard against terrorism, said police Officer Michael Leap of the River Rescue unit. After 9/11, the city's three rivers were among inland ports given money for more patrols and infrastructure inspections and Coast Guard patrols included heavily armed officers. The city bought two of its patrol boats with Department of Homeland Security money, he said.

DeMichiei said to expect security restrictions on the river similar to those in place during Major League Baseball's All-Star Game at PNC Park in July 2006, when officials restricted the types of vessels permitted on the Allegheny.

He said security cameras expected to be installed by September on bridges and utility poles, paid for through a federal port security grant, will monitor the rivers. Officials will watch video feeds from a mobile command post through a networked computer system.

Kang and Leap said authorities almost certainly will close the Allegheny, largely used for recreation and not by industry, during the summit. …

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Law Enforcement, Safety Agencies Keep Close Eye on Three Rivers during Regatta
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