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SWAT officers drop in for 6th annual Open House

"Sparky," the remote-controlled fire mascot, was there, and the bomb robot went through its paces, but the stars of the show Thursday night were two Merced Police Department officers who rappelled off the outside wall of the Hotel Tioga.

The "show" was the city of Merced's annual Open House. Sgt. Jay Struble and Officer Keith Pelowski provided the neck-craning excitement as they came down the 68 feet of the six-story downtown hotel three times.

Pelowski and Struble are rappel masters for the department, meaning they teach other officers how to use ropes and harnesses to scale steep vertical surfaces. Thursday night's demonstration as city departments showed off key features was fun, an adrenalin junkie's sport, Struble joked.

Garbed in camoflage gear, the two officers said they hoped they don't have to use their building-scaling skills for real. They are two of the department's 17 Special Weapons and Tactics squad members, and someday might need to enter a building like the Hotel Tioga from the outside rather than the front door.

Pelowski said when he first started rappelling, he was afraid of heights and didn't want to jump off a building. Now he enjoys it and isn't afraid that the nylon ropes that secure him will break.

Normally a detective who works sexual assault cases, SWAT team memberPelowski said officers want to go down a building quickly and quietly, not swinging their feet out like on the television programs, so they aren't noticed. He has been a SWAT member for six years.

The officers also went down the Tioga Australia-style, meaning their backs were to the wall and they could see the ground far below as they descended. This style "plays more of a mind game," Struble admitted.

All SWAT officers must learn to rappel, and Struble admits some trainees initially are afraid. While some of it is good-old acrophobia -- fear of heights -- much of it is a lack of confidence in the equipment, relying on a one-inch harness or three-eighths inch rope.

"It's (rappelling) one of the skills or tools you need to know so you don't get hurt," Struble said.

Lt. Andre Matthews has rappelled twice, the last time during a recent Citizens Academy class. He said it was a great experience and he "enjoyed the ride." Officers using the ropes and those on the ground holding the ends control the rate of descent. It's like walking, only on a vertical plane, he explained.

Normally, Merced officers train on the 40-foot tower at the Merced Fire Department's station on East 16th Street. For the open house, the hotel adjoining the Merced Civic Center, the tallest building in town, provided the perfect backdrop for the exercise.

The only SWAT mission that actually involved rappelling happened about 15 years ago. In some instances getting into a building from the rooftop may be the only option, Struble said.

Open House visitors also saw the police department's remote-controlled bomb robot blow up a plastic water bottle perched on top of a garbage can. Simulated smoke was also pouring out of the Merced Fire Department's rescue trailer, which teaches people how to evacuate safely from a burning building.

Other enticements beckoned Open House guests, including several public works boom trucks, the fire department's aerial ladder truck and a bounce house in the alley behind the civic center.

"We're proud of what we do and want to show it to community," Mike Conway, city spokesman, said.

Because of construction in the former city parking lot, the Open House stretched from the Civic Center, around N Street and down Main to M Street. Department representatives met the public, answered questions and showed some of the services they offer.

For the kids, the Parks and Community Services Department offered arts and crafts projects, bounce houses and music.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or