Bill aims to create state-funded emergency response team based in Allegheny County

PITTSBURGH — A bipartisan bill aims to create a state-funded emergency response team based in Allegheny County.

When the Fern Hollow Bridge Collapse happened at the beginning of 2022, Brian Kokkila was there as a first responder. Kokkila is the assistant fire chief for the City of Pittsburgh and is the task force leader for the PA Urban Search and Rescue crew based in Western Pennsylvania.

“One of the big critical gaps that we’ve been missing is the K9 resources,” said Kokkila.

Right now, the state’s main search and rescue team is based in Philidelphia. On the day of the collapse, it took more than six hours for help from the east to arrive with the search and rescue dogs.

“Had we needed the larger, whole team from Philadelphia, it would’ve taken 12 hours,” Kokkila said.

Getting a quicker response time for major emergencies like Fern Hollow and the East Palestine train derailment is a main motivator for the bill. WPXI spoke with two senators from Allegheny County who are sponsoring the bill.

“It’s not what the taxpayers deserve and I believe there should be two task forces in PA. One in Philadelphia and one in Pittsburgh so that the people in western PA are not beholden to a search and rescue apparatus that is six hours away,” said Sen. Devlin Robinson-R.

“Whether they be structural disasters, whether they be flooding, whatever the case may be, that there’s a quicker response,” said Sen. Jay Costa-D.

The Philadelphia-based unit is a FEMA-designated Urban Search & Rescue Task Force, which is funded by federal money. If the current bill is voted in, the Pittsburgh-based search and rescue team would be funded by the state.

“People’s taxes will not be raised to pay for this. The money would come from state government. We now have an $8-plus billion dollar budget surplus right now this year that we’ve not utilized those resources,” Costa explained.

Wednesday, the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee will decide whether or not to approve the bill. Both senators say the need is urgent, citing a study from 20 years ago that recommended a second western Pennsylvania team.

“We deserve the equal protections for all citizens and this is just one step towards solving that problem for the commonwealth and its citizens,” said Kokkila.

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