Putnam Prepares to Assemble Specialized Rescue Team

County has money but needs legislative approval

By Holly Crocco

Putnam County is close to having a specialized rescue team that can come to the aid of people who need to be extricated from an embankment, rescued from a fall or find themselves in an otherwise sticky situation.

Anthony Sutton, the county’s emergency services commissioner, told legislators at the July 18 Protective Services Committee meeting that the federal Department of Homeland Security two years ago awarded the county a $150,000 grant to create a Technical Rescue Team. So far $80,000 has been spent on equipment and training, he said.

Now, the team needs to be formalized under a mutual-aid agreement.

“We have a growing need in some places in the county, but even all over the county, for specialized rescue,” he said.

One such place is Breakneck Ridge in Philipstown.

Firefighters and instructors from West Point and Newburgh prepare to rappel off the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in 2011 as part of training to create a Rope Rescue Division within the Orange County Technical Rescue Team. (West Point photo)

“There are people in distress on that mountain every week,” said Barbara Scuccimarra (R-Philipstown), who explained that only select members of the fire department can hike up the mountain to rescue a wayward hiker. In addition, when firefighters are called to the mountain, the department has less manpower to fight a fire or respond to a car crash, should a call come in.

“This, in some ways, is going to alleviate some of the stress that this fire department is facing every week,” she said. “There are 1,000 people a weekend who go up that mountain. And it’s not just the weekends anymore.”

A Technical Rescue Team is trained in rope rescue, as well as rescues that include confined spaces, swift water, high angles, wilderness and ice, Sutton explained. There is already great interest from firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other volunteers to join the team, he said.

“I don’t know that there’s ever a need to have this degree of training and specialization in a fire department, because the calls are not that frequent,” he said. “But to have it across the county as a team that can respond, it’s beneficial.”

Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) said she is hesitant about the county starting another emergency services team just to address concerns at Breakneck Ridge. But Deputy EMS Commissioner Robert Lipton explained that the squad will also be helpful when it comes to rescuing people from cars that go down an embankment on Interstates 84 or 684, or if someone falls down an elevator shaft.

“There’s a way to do extractions and bringing people up that takes knowing how to use ropes and pulleys” while maintaining safety, explained Sutton. “When you meet someone who knows how to rig ropes, it’s pretty impressive to see.”

He added that it’s dangerous for someone to attempt such a rescue if they are not trained to do so, because he or she could become a victim, as well.

Sutton said the county can share the cost of continued training with Westchester County, which has its own Technical Rescue Team, and Orange County, which has a Rope Rescue Team. In fact, he said, the county’s willingness to share resources helped secure the grant.

“You never know what else is going to be going on in the world when you need that asset, so it’s good to have the capability in-house and be able to work as part of a regional undertaking, which is what the feds are looking for,” he said. “Regionalization gives them the most bang for the dollar when they give you grant money.”

While Putnam has relied on Westchester and Orange County’s support for many rescues, Sutton said that waiting for a team from a neighboring county wastes time. And even though Putnam’s Technical Rescue Team may be called to other counties to assist with rescues, Sutton said he expects “the lion’s share of the work” to be in Putnam.

The committee unanimously approved the formalization of a Technical Rescue Team, and the matter will now go to the full Legislature for a vote.