Phil Morton has a simple message: “Underwater searches are not an exact science.”
But, the rescue diver said, a little technology can make a big difference.
“Very often, we are able to find what or who we are looking for very quickly using tried and true techniques that have been used ... for decades,” said Morton, a member of Columbia Basin Dive Rescue.
However, he said, the addition of sonar would make their job safer and cut down on time spent searching water that often has low visibility.
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It might have eased a family’s grief during the search for Jason Robinson in the Snake River this August.
Walla Walla County sheriff’s deputies and Columbia Basin Dive Rescue spent four days looking for him, leaving friends and family caught in limbo as they waited.
A search begins with interviewing witnesses to determine where the person was last seen. That’s the point where rescuers start looking, but they can be hampered by poor underwater visibility.
Sonar would help solve that problem, Morton said. The device sends out a high-frequency pulse and records what is reflected back. These reflections are pieced together to make an image of the bottom.
“The main advantage there being that because the system uses ultrasonic sound waves, and not visible light, it allows the operator to see through water that is too thick with sediment or is too dark for a diver to physically see through,” he said.
While it won’t be a silver bullet to solve all the problems of searching the murky river water, it would help in some important ways, Morton said.
In particular, sonar helps make sure the water is safe for divers, and makes it easier to narrow the search area.
But it comes with a cost.
Between buying the equipment, training on it and installing it into three boats, the project is expected to cost $45,000. The sonar itself costs $38,500.
Several people have questioned why the organization is asking for the money for the training and installation costs on top of the cost of the sonar.
Both the outfitting the boats and the training are necessary components, Morton said. Each of the boats needs an electrical system to control the cable towing the sonar.
“The rigging on the boat will ensure consistency, security and repeatability in managing that cable length,” he said. “Managing it by hand really isn’t an option due to the down force created by the fins as it moves through the water.”
The equipment requires training to use, and while the company selling it offers it for free, it does cost money to send people to Virginia for the training.
The non-profit gets money from local law enforcement and fire agencies, but most of it goes to maintain the team’s trucks and boats, along with paying for facilities and training. The dive rescue’s directors agreed to pay half of the cost of the equipment, team members are being asked to raise the other half.
Morton pointed out the dive rescue team is an all-volunteer non-profit that works closely with government agencies, but isn’t one.
It turned to Crowdrise, a crowd-funding site designed for non-profit agencies. So far they’ve raised just over $1,000, with several people donating in memory of Cole Grad, a Chiawana student who drowned after touching an electrified pipe in August 2017.
People can donate by going to bit.ly/DiveRescueSonar.