Remote-control robot could reduce water rescue time

The tragic drowning of a 35-year-old at a Finley park man may have had a different outcome if the Tri-Cities had a special water robot available for emergency responders to use, a Franklin County sheriff's deputy said.

Deputy Terry Brown and Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel have been trying to raise money to buy a SARbot, which can help authorities in water rescue situations.

The remote-control operated robot can be quickly dropped in the water and, with the aid of a camera, be maneuvered to search for a body in the water.

"It's very obvious that it's needed," Brown said, referring to Wednesday afternoon's drowning at the Two Rivers Park lagoon. "Had I had it, I was actually working patrol in south Pasco and could have been on site within five to 10 minutes and could have been in the water searching a few minutes after."

Witnesses on shore jumped into the water to try to save the man, identified by friends as Jose Mejia, but it took about 30 minutes for Columbia Basin Dive Rescue members to get to the park. Dive Rescue is a volunteer organization, and divers respond to emergencies on an on-call basis.

Brown, who is on the Dive Rescue board, said the group does a good job and the SARbot can't replace them, but it does take time for them to respond.

"However, if we had the technology already and it was in place and in a patrol car, it could have been there faster than Dive Rescue could," Brown said. "It's going to happen again this year. The sooner we get it here, the better off everybody will be. There may not be a next person if we can get it here."

A representive from SeaBotix, the company that makes the SARbot, was in the Tri-Cities in March demonstrating how fast it can find a person in the water. It took about seven minutes for the robot to find a dummy in about 18 feet of water and bring it back to shore.

That presentation proved the effectiveness of the equipment, Brown said.

"I'm pretty confident we could have found (Mejia) and pulled him out, to possibly get him out and do CPR," Brown said.

Brown said he's not guaranteeing they could have saved the swimmer, but he said it would have given them a better chance. It took about three hours for divers to recover the body Wednesday.

It costs about $85,000 for the robot and $55,000 has been raised.

He has been seeking grants and soliciting donations from community service organizations. A dunk-a-cop fundraiser also is planned for July 1 at the Dust Devils baseball game. Brown will be in a dunk tank and he is trying to recruit some top cops willing to get dunked for a good cause.

On July 2, he will be in a dunk tank at the Independence Day Car Show at TRAC in Pasco, and also will raffle a 24-foot swimming pool donated by Walmart.

To make a donation or for more information, call Brown at 545-3501.