By Joe Pinchot
MERCER COUNTY — When the Critical Incident Response Team was formed two years ago, it had no specialized training or equipment and more than a few skeptics about whether it was needed.
Since then, the combined efforts of the federal government and local community, along with the dedication of the team members, have made it a functioning unit, confident in its abilities.
“I’m very happy with the advances we have made, so far,” said Hermitage Police Chief Patrick B. McElhinny, a member of the team’s oversight board. “I have every confidence we can do what we’re doing safely now.”
The unit is made up of 15 policemen from Hermitage, Sharon, Southwest Mercer County Regional and Grove City. The members had to pass a traditional interview process to join the team, and must complete quarterly firearms examinations — the state requires policemen to qualify only once a year — and an annual physical fitness test.
The team is designed to respond to unusual situations, such as snipers, hostage and barricade standoffs and high risk arrests, and dealings with more sophisticated criminals, who employ barricaded doors and security cameras.
The federal government has stepped forward with the training. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency provided 40 hours of tactical training.
“It would have cost us about $20,000 for a private vendor,” McElhinny said.
Every other month, two members of the team attend a training session with an FBI agent — also for free — and then train the rest of the team. Subjects covered so far have included building entry and firearms.
“The quality of what we’re getting is really, really high,” McElhinny said.
Community support also has raised the level of the team. Tom Marshall of Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, Hermitage, donated a trailer loaded with sledge hammers, pry bars, hand tools and other items, and Duferco Farrell Corp., Farrell, made a 500-pound steel entry door that the team will use to practice building entries.
School officials at Hermitage, Sharpsville, West Middlesex and George Junior Republic in Pine Township have allowed the team to train at their schools.
Student Transportation of America, Hermitage, and Mike Beatty of Grove City, have turned over use of buses for special training.
Sharon Police Department donated radios to the team, and Robert S. Goeltz, Hermitage’s fire chief, trained team members in hazardous materials response and allowed use of the department’s training tower for rappelling.
“We have some great community support,” McElhinny said, adding that U.S. Department of Homeland Security is to provide vests and helmets.
The team members donate their own time for training.
“Their commitment is unbelievable,” McElhinny said.
The team has participated in warrant services and arrests, and accompanied members of DEA, U.S. Marshal’s Service, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state Attorney General’s Office and Mercer County Drug Task Force on details.
The team could be called anywhere in western Pennsylvania, and recently worked a warrant service detail in New Castle with the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
The team is not on the level of the state police CIRT because the Mercer County team members still have to work their regular jobs and are paid overtime for CIRT activities by their home departments, but it shows what law enforcement agencies can do when they work together, McElhinny said.
“It’s necessary nowadays — you have to share services,” he said. “You have to share information. That’s an important part of policing now.”