SHACOG: Better Together

Here, SHACOG first responders from several communities are practicing rappelling, a rope rescue technique used to lower themselves down steep hills or into deep confined spaces.

Anyone who has ever joined a co-op knows the value of having a lot of buyers, whether you’re looking for insurance, prescription meds or tires. Same principle applies to municipalities buying road salt, street signs and police cars: strength in numbers

The South Hills Area Council of Governments (SHACOG) has 22 member communities, accounting for a total population of about 296,000. Since its incorporation in 1973, SHACOG has allowed communities to enjoy the same strength-in-numbers advantage as people who belong to co-ops.

There are other COGs in the area: Steel Rivers encompasses 19 Mon Valley communities; North Hills, Quaker Valley, Turtle Creek Valley and Chartiers West. The member communities of these intergovernmental organizations recognize the need for a joint approach to common  issues in a region  characterized by hundreds of small municipalities dealing with similar challenges and limited budgets. 

SHACOG is funded through membership fees—each community pays an annual membership fee and costs for SHACOG programs. Mt. Lebanon pays a $5,000 membership fee and police and fire pay $3,981 and $2,481 respectively for their participation in the Cooperative Emergency Response Program.  SHACOG also receives some revenue from Allegheny County for administering its Community Development Block Grant program.

Just from joint purchasing power alone, Mt. Lebanon benefits from savings on salt for the roads, topsoil, mulch, gravel and road signs. Along with the buying power that comes with placing orders for 22 communities, SHACOG members also benefit from the COG taking responsibility for the bidding process—advertising contracts, supervising bid openings, acting as the point of contact and answering pre-bid questions for all interested parties.

SHACOG does all the legwork for bids,” says Mt. Lebanon Public Works Director Rudy Sukal.“It’s awesome for us.

A good example of how SHACOG works is the new waste hauling contract which takes effect this month. SHACOG Director Lou Gorski began work on the contract 18 months before the old one expired, gathering detailed information from each community required to put together the basic bid—number of households, number of rental properties, road miles in each of the 22 towns. He also compiled the bid alternates various communities wished contractors to bid on—for example, Mt. Lebanon needed trash pickup in the central business districts, while Bethel Park opted for automated pickup.  All of this work was complicated early in 2018 by global changes in the recycling market that eventually led all three waste haulers to submit bids that did not include accepting glass or most plastics for recycling.

There also are efficiencies in sharing equipment, whether it is rented or purchased. For some infrequent jobs that require expensive specialized equipment, such as line painting on the roads, it is more cost effective to rent equipment than to own it.  SHACOG contracts with a professional company for line-painting services and then works out payment and scheduling with the communities whose public works departments want a share of the time.

Similarly, being able to share in purchase of important specialized equipment that is needed only occasionally is a big plus for the police. A good example is crash data retrieval systems, which cost $10,000 but can aid in accident reconstruction, now that cars are equipped with event data recorders similar to black boxes on aircraft. These retrieval systems are needed only in extreme cases where physical crash reconstruction may not yield conclusive evidence, possibly only every couple of years, says Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Aaron Lauth. That’s not often enough to justify a big chunk of an individual police department’s budget, he adds, but a SHACOG purchase can benefit everyone.

The level of training of SHACOG’s Critical Incident Response Team enabled team members to seamlessly interact with SWAT team members from the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in response to October’s Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

Mt. Lebanon Fire Chief Nick Sohyda appreciates SHACOG’s work in putting bid packages together for equipment and services for more than 40 fire companies. His department gets reduced rates on everything from protective equipment to annual testing of hoses, ladders and pumpers.

SHACOG also offers joint training for new fire volunteers, making it possible for them to complete the 166-hour course in a more timely and convenient way. “Previously, our recruits would have to go to North Park, to the county fire academy, and do it on the academy’s schedule. Now, we can do it closer to home; people don’t have to spend a couple of hours in travel time.”

SHACOG provides member communities with opportunities to share experience.

In addition to a monthly SHACOG board meeting where the member communities are represented by appointed elected officials, there is also a quarterly meeting that allows the managers to meet and receive updates on everything from upcoming changes in salt prices to the status of grant applications and opportunities.

A multi-community team distributes the cost of purchasing expensive equipment used for situations such rescuing a worked from a collapsed trench (pictured) that happen only once in a while.

Lauth attends monthly meetings of SHACOG’s police chiefs’ committee. He belongs to a number of other statewide and regional chiefs’ associations but says the SHACOG group is the most immediately effective.

The communities benefit from adopting the same training for events, such as active shooter scenarios, firearms training, use of force and current case law. SHACOG maintains a cooperative investigative team that shares information on cases, such as drugs and prostitution, that cross municipal borders.

There are a total of about 450 officers in the 22 SHACOG communities. In 2009, SHACOG formed a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) that drew officers from participating departments.

Allegheny County Police Department maintains its own Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which is available to Mt. Lebanon, but having a trained quick-response team of local officers can make a difference in the amount of time it takes to respond and also can be helpful to the county in a critical incident.

Recently, an armed suspect barricaded himself in a house on Anawanda Avenue. A trained CIRT officer was on duty in Mt. Lebanon and a trained SHACOG Tactical Negotiations Team (TNT) officer was working in neighboring Castle Shannon. Both officers were on-scene immediately and worked for a peaceful resolution to the incident. And members of SHACOG’s CIRT responded to the October 27, 2018, shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, along with members of the Allegheny County and other regional SWAT teams. Because all of the officers had received the same training, they were able to seamlessly interact.

“The commanders were able to mix team members into elements where everyone was on the same page,” says Lauth.

SHACOG’s Technical Rescue Team and Swift Water Rescue Team allows all member communities to benefit from specialized training that would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming if it was limited to just one community.

Several firefighters serve on SHACOG’s technical rescue and swift water rescue teams. Technical rescue refers to rescues that involve specialized techniques and equipment, such as a collapsed trench or steep slope. As with the CIRT, the efficiency comes from balancing the amount of specialized training required with the slim possibility of frequent occurrences while still ensuring there are an adequate number of prepared responders when a technical or swift water event occurs.

The swift water rescue team was last deployed during the June 20, 2018, storm.  “Combined training really eases the burden, because every department may only have to contribute a few people to train for low-frequency events,” Sohyda says.

And again, the combined purchasing power of 22 communities with 40 fire companies allows for a competitive price on specialized equipment, such as the rescue team’s trench rescue trailer. One more advantage to pooling funds and resources. Municipal Manager Keith McGill says:

“More than anything it just makes sense, because it allows the member communities to save money, share resources and identify additional opportunities to more efficiently deliver services to our residents,”

Photography by: Ken Lager, Judy Macoskey, John Altdorfer