It could be safer in the water around the Tri-Cities this summer, thanks to a specially designed underwater robot that has the potential to save lives.
For two years, Franklin County sheriff's Deputy Terry Brown has been trying to raise enough funds to get a search-and-rescue robot, called SARbot, to help with water rescues. The SARbot is run by remote control, and can be set up and put in the water quickly to try to help rescue a drowning victim.
On Friday, Brown announced that $83,000 in donations have been secured, allowing the sheriff's office to buy the SARbot. Four deputies will begin training on it Monday.
"What it's essentially going to allow us to do is a quicker response time in combination with Dive Rescue," Brown told the Herald. "We're going to try to integrate with their system. And hopefully when they get dispatched to a call, we can get the same call. We should be able to be first responders to just about anywhere inside Benton and Franklin counties for a drowning."
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The SARbot won't replace the volunteer divers with Columbia Basin Dive Rescue who are called out when a drowning is reported, Brown said. But, it can help responders start searching underwater faster and can allow them to stay underwater longer, he said.
In fall 2010, Franklin County officials got to see a demonstration on how the SARbot works and how it could be beneficial in the Tri-Cities.
About a year ago, a second demonstration of the robot was conducted at the Columbia Point boat launch in Richland. During that event, it took just 51/2 minutes for a deputy to arrive at the scene of a reported drowning and locate the victim in the water. It took another 90 seconds before the victim was safely pulled from the water.
That rescue didn't require anyone to get into the frigid water.
"It's going to cut down on the time we have to have people in the water," Brown said. "The end goal is, obviously, to make a rescue and not a recovery ... and to improve safety when we're on scene."
If a drowning rescue does turn into a recovery, the SARbot might be able to help speed up the retrieval of the body so friends and family don't have to spend hours on the shore watching and waiting.
The SARbot will be kept in a Franklin County sheriff's patrol car, and a patrol deputy will be the primary responder with the equipment, Brown said. He's hoping, however, to also train people in other agencies so they can help get the robot set up once the deputy arrives on the scene.
Brown said about 40 donors gave money to help purchase the underwater robot. Donations came from citizens, Port of Pasco, Port of Kennewick, businesses, service groups, corporations and the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.