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Blawnox OKs $2.1 Million Renovation For Building

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
October 1, 2009
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Blawnox Borough is set to pay for a $2.1 million renovation to the borough building and fire hall along Freeport Road.

The price tag, according to borough officials, will not equate to a tax-rate increase for borough residents.

Council unanimously agreed to the project that will add about 10,000 square feet to the building's existing 7,500 square feet to house borough administration, public works, police and the volunteer fire department.

The renovation includes the addition of an elevator and stair tower and a new fire department garage with the public works department expanded into the basement.

Built in 1939, the two-story, brick building has had few renovations, according to borough officials. And through the years, departments such as the volunteer fire company have outgrown the building, they said.

Council President Sam McNaughton half-joked that the borough has been working on renovation plans for its building since 1977.

Mayor Tom Smith said flatly of the current fire department garage: "It's not safe."

There's only four inches of clearance in the front and back of the main truck when parked in the garage, according to Smith.

"And the kitchen in your home is probably bigger than our police department," said Smith of the one-room police station.

In April, council hired N. John Cunzolo Associates of Pittsburgh for $10,000 to study the borough's best options for more space.

The architectural firm proposed renovating the existing building rather than constructing a new facility, which would have cost 50 percent more than a renovation, according to Ryan Pierce, vice president of architecture at N. John Cunzolo Associates.

"We're giving them a project for what they can afford to spend," said Pierce.

"The borough's number-one priority was not to have to increase taxes," he said.

So the firm worked "backward" to develop a project within the borough's budget, according to Pierce.

His firm is working on a final design and is producing multiple alternates for bids so the borough has more flexibility to keep construction costs down, Pierce said.

The borough is working with Joe Muscatello of Boenning Scattergood Inc. of Pittsburgh on financing.

Muscatello told council that the borough could roll its outstanding debt plus the renovation costs into a $2.9 million bond issue over 30 years, which would limit the borough's debt service to about $175,000 a year.

As Muscatello explores financing for the project, the architectural firm is working on designs for the renovations.

If there are no delays, construction could start as early as May of 2010, with completion of the project coming in July of 2011.

Blawnox River Rescue Readies For Wave Of New Calls

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
May 7, 2009
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Among the din of the Allegheny River lapping onto empty docks that clang with each coming wave, members of Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company ready their multiple watercrafts for another season of river rescue.

Among the best-outfitted crews in the lower Allegheny River communities, Blawnox's river rescue unit responds to distress calls to watercraft going over the Highland Park dam to assisting in finding bridge jumpers.

The unit even assists in natural disasters, helping rescue flood victims in the Millvale flood in 2004.

"There's a lot of people on the water and its important that we provide those rescue services," said George McBriar, chief of the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company.

The unit is docked in the Allegheny River at a private dock in Blawnox and covers calls from Harmar to Aspinwall and O'Hara Township, one of the busiest pools on the rivers, he said.

Blawnox's fleet includes one 24-foot pontoon boat outfitted with a pumper that can spray a jet of water up to 40 yards, a speed boat, one new water ski with a second one on the way and an inflatable rescue boat. The fire department has a small truck dedicated to hauling watercraft and equipment for river rescue.

The company has put together its rescue watercraft, equipment and gear slowly through the years with small grants.

Recent additions include a side sonar device that can detect objects in the water on the side of the boat, adding to the existing sonar detector that scans directly below the boat.

The Blawnox department is the only fire department accredited by the state Fish and Boat Commission in the lower Allegheny River for "swift water rescue."

Maneuvering a watercraft in strong currents and other perilous conditions takes some training, according to squad members.

Last year, the Blawnox firefighters attended 80 hours of river-related training. The river rescue operations is made up of 12 firefighters certified for emergency boat operations, swift water rescue, and advanced line system.

"Our guys could get a line from here to that island," said McBriar, pointing to an island about 50 yards away.

The river rescue unit started out small with only one pontoon boat but as more watercraft has crowded the river, more help was needed.

The Blawnox department fills a much-needed niche.

"Sharpsburg has the aerial truck, Guyasuta does all land-based rescues and nobody has the ability to do what we do on the river," said McBriar of neighboring volunteer fire companies.

River rescue fields about 10 to 15 calls a year.

Recent incidents include a boater who fell asleep in the path of a barge.

When the gargantuan vessel blew its warning horn three times, a nearby resident phoned 911 and river rescue was on its way.

The boater was unharmed.

Last year, a boat salesman was test-driving a vessel with a potential customer, and was explaining the function of the gadgets on the instrument panel.

The salesman wasn't paying attention and inadvertently went over the Highland Park dam. "Luckily, they landed right, but I don't think the guy bought the boat," said McBriar.

Although there are comical mishaps, there are serious fatalities on the river and the Blawnox unit often is called in to lead or assist in search and rescue missions. The Millvale flood was particularly scary, according to some of the officers.

The current was so strong that they had to tether their rescue boat to a rope so the water wouldn't overtake them.

The first priority for the river rescue workers always is personal safety.

"If you're not safe, you can't rescue anybody," said Pam Stephens, a lieutenant with the fire department.

In difficult waters, controlling and maneuvering a vessel is difficult, according to Ed Benaglio, fire company captain. "It's a lot different than sitting in the bath tub."

And when driving a boat, one cannot merely travel in a straight line from point A to point B, said John Simmons, assistant chief. "You have to account for where the current wants to take you."

According to McBriar, river rescue will continue training personnel and keeping its fleet ready for another season of action.

Blawnox Firefighters Getting New Gear

The Herald
By Mary Ann Thomas
Staff Writer
March 5, 2009
Story Link

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded a $95,000 grant to the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company.

According to fire company Chief George McBriar, the money will pay for much needed turn-out gear for volunteer firefighters and a high-pressure breathing air compressor.

"The gear we have is nine years old and it is time to change it," said McBriar. "We would have not been able to get this without the federal grants," he said. "It's a big deal for us."

The fire company is currently pricing 30 sets of clothing and gear to equip each active firefighter with a new pair of bunker pants and coats made from fire-retardant material and liners to keep them comfortable in hot and cold conditions.

The new high-pressure breathing air compressor, costing $40,000, will increase breathing capacity for each firefighter by about 30 percent, McBriar said. The old system was donated and this is the first time that the fire company will purchase the special air compressor, he said.

The air system is used by firefighters who are going in or near a structure that poses any breathing hazards. "The new system will allow firefighters to carry more air with them," McBriar said.

The compressor is already ordered and McBriar expects to settle on turnout gear in the next several months.

The fire company responded to more than 250 calls last years, most of which were fire-related calls for mutual aid to Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, Harmar and other communities.

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