RICHLAND — It took just 5 1/2 minutes for a Franklin County sheriff's deputy to arrive at the scene of a reported drowning and locate the victim underwater -- all without ever getting into the frigid water.
Just another 90 seconds passed Wednesday before the victim safely was pulled from the water.
"That's phenomenal," said Deputy Terry Brown. "No dive team in their right mind could get set up and do that in that amount of time."
The successful rescue was made by a special search and rescue robot, called a SARbot, that was demonstrated in a simulated drowning at Columbia Point boat launch in Richland.
Brown, along with Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel, touted the benefits of the SARbot as they began a community campaign to raise money to buy it.
"I've been convinced since the first time I saw it that we need it here," Blasdel said. "This is huge. There's nothing like this in Eastern Washington."
Though he had seen it in action before, that didn't stop Blasdel from being impressed with how quickly the robot found the dummy in the water and at the clarity of the underwater picture being relayed by the robot.
To show off the SARbot's capabilities, Mark Allen, a diver who operates Water Safety LLC, and sheriff's Deputy Mark Boyer took a Franklin County sheriff's boat about 75 feet from the boat launch and dropped the dummy overboard.
Brown and Jesse Rodocker, vice president of marketing for SeaBotix, then simulated arriving at the scene, getting a location from a witness about where the victim went down and set up the SARbot.
The robot, hooked to a long green cord that transmitted images back to a laptop computer, was put into the water as Rodocker controlled it with a joystick. Within mere moments, he spotted the victim about 10 feet in front of him.
The dummy was in about 18 feet of water and the water temperature was 37 degrees, which would have required special equipment for a diver.
"That right there speaks volumes for what this robot's worth," Brown said. "It's pretty much worth its weight in gold."
In fact, it actually took longer to set up the SARbot than it did to find the dummy once the robot hit the water.
Besides being able to quickly find a drowning victim and possibly turn an incident into a rescue instead of a recovery, using the SARbot helps eliminate the risk of putting divers in the water.
"If we had this at Scootney, that guy would have been recovered before I even got there," Blasdel said, referring to a May 2010 drowning of an Othello man at Scootney Reservoir.
Pedro Valentin Javier, 39, drowned when a paddleboat he was in sank. Divers with Columbia Basin Dive Rescue spent three hours that evening searching for Javier's body and had to come out again the next morning but couldn't find him.
The next day, Javier's friends got poles and hooks and dragged the water trying to recover the body. Blasdel and Allen then spent two days searching for him with an underwater camera before finally recovering the body.
For five days, Javier's friends and relatives sat on the rocky shore at Scootney waiting. They weren't willing to leave until Javier was found.
"At the very minimum, we can do the recovery (quickly with the robot) so the family's not having to wait days before the body surfaces," Blasdel said. "It can bring some closure."
Visibility, depth and temperature pose no problem for the robot, Rodocker said.
The only time it could be challenged is when currents are stronger than 3 or 4 knots, but Rodocker said there are ways to work around those issues.
It's going to be tested in the Columbia River because the currents are around 3-4 knots.
With the amount of water around the Tri-Cities, southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon, Brown and Blasdel said the SARbot definitely is needed.
Cold water drownings can quickly occur when water temperatures are below 69 degrees, causing a person to struggle to stay above the water before slipping under when they become tired, officials said Wednesday.
The need for oxygen forces a person to involuntarily gasp for air, taking in cold water that rapidly reduces the core body temperature.
Residual oxygen levels can last up to 90 minutes after hypothermia sets in, but hospitals can use rewarming procedures to slowly bring the body's core temperature back up.
That's why if a victim quickly is found in the water, there's a chance their life can be saved, officials said.
Blasdel noted that most Tri-Citians don't realize the water in the Columbia River stays cold and doesn't rise above 69 degrees even when the mercury spikes to 100 degrees or more.
Officials said they plan to go to businesses, service clubs and talk to anyone they can to solicit donations to purchase the SARbot.
"We just need community support to try to help raise the money," Brown said, noting that the search and rescue budget for the county is "nonexistent."
They're hoping to raise $100,000, which will cover the purchase, training and money for replacement parts, Brown said.
They need about $40,000 before they can order it.
"Hopefully we can get it before it gets hot and somebody drowns," Blasdel said.
For more information or to find out how to donate, call Brown at 545-3501 or Blasdel at 546-5885.
-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; email@example.com