Pittsburgh leaders plan to use a federal grant to buy a new hovercraft and outfit the city's two main rescue boats with new motors. City Council gave preliminary approval to the necessary legislation on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh Emergency Management Deputy Director Ray DeMichiei said the hovercraft, which uses a cushion of air to float inches above water or land, is designed to reach places that traditional boats can't, such as ice and shallow water.
"In some places, you may not be able to get within 20 or 30 yards of the shoreline before the existing boats bottom out," said DeMichiei. "We want to avoid that, because that sometimes punches holes in the bottom of the boat, and they tend to sink when there's holes in them."
He said the hovercraft isn't as futuristic as it sounds.
"There's not much to it. I mean, it's a fiberglass shell, and a skirt, and some motors, and a fan for a compressor that elevates it, and a steering mechanism," said DeMichiei. "It's pretty straightforward."
Once staff members are trained, the $100,000 hovercraft -- a four-person rescue model from the Michigan company Hovertechnics -- will join the two motorboat "workhorses" of the Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit this summer. DeMichiei said the boats are used for a multitude of purposes, especially in the summer.
"There are people who have problems with their vessels; their motor conks out and they're drifting. We have barges that break loose. We have body recoveries, unfortunately, sometimes, where you have a body in the river," said DeMichiei. "Then there's also the security aspect of it." He said the boats are on daily patrols to protect the city's water infrastructure.
The city's emergency management chief told City Council that the motors currently in the rescue boats are outdated and in constant need of repair.
"I think last year, during a 150-day period, both vessels were operational for patrol and response only 21 days out of those 150, because of chronic -- they were bad motors," said DeMichiei.
The federal grant will pay for 75% of the total cost of $267,532 for the hovercraft and the new motors.