Teams Dive Into Ohio River Training

Federal, state and local agencies took to the Ohio River in Wheeling on Monday during a pair of training exercises that were a first for a trio of Ohio County special response teams.

In the first scenario, President Obama was visiting Wheeling Heritage Port to announce new U.S. Coast Guard standards and regulations governing the shipping and transportation of natural gas well fracking fluids by barges on the nation’s waterways. Prior to the presidential visit, the FBI identified credible threats and briefed local, state and other federal agencies.

In its first major training exercise, the Wheeling Area Underwater Special Tactics Team deployed divers into the Ohio River to locate an underwater explosive device.

The recently operational, 24-member dive team is comprised of Wheeling police officers, Ohio County sheriff’s deputies and Wheeling and Benwood firefighters.

Local divers marked the device on the sea wall along the Heritage Port stage. Divers from the Allegheny County Bomb Squad then brought the would-be explosive to the surface and defused it.

Also on hand were representatives from the Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit and the Pittsburgh Police Department, including Sgt. Barry Budd, who offered the divers some last-minute coaching before they got in the murky water.

“The entire exercise was very successful, and we obviously identified a lot of resources that we have available to us,” said Wheeling Police Lt. Phil Redford, who co-commands the local dive team with Wheeling Fire Capt. Mike Baker.

“We also found different things that we need to work on, but that’s the purpose of the exercise – not to see how good you are, but where you need to improve,” Redford added.

The underwater unit is governed by an executive committee consisting of the chiefs of each agency and Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Lou Vargo, who celebrated having all three levels of government agencies participate in the exercises.

“It all worked out very well and that’s best way to prepare for a real world event – in training like this – and we were real happy to host it here in Wheeling,” he offered.

In the second scenario, terrorists hi-jacked a tow boat in Brooke County and traveled downriver. When the vessel reached the Pike Island Locks and Dam, Wheeling Police SWAT Team and the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department Special Response Team boarded the boats, overtook the hijackers and rescued the hostages.

The exercise was the first time both law enforcement special units practiced securing a commercial vessel.

“I think things went pretty well,” said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger.

“Usually with an operation like this, there’s some communication glitches, and that’s what we expected and had. But overall, it was a successful day and I can tell everybody involved learned a lot.”

In addition, the following agencies also took part in Monday’s exercises: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, West Virginia State Police, West Virginia Fusion Center, Ohio EMA and Fusion Center, Pennsylvania EMA and Fusion Center, Marshall County Office of Emergency Management, Jefferson County EMA, Belmont County EMA, West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the West Virginia Department of Transportation.