Vol­un­teer non­profit that searches for drown­ing vic­tims is ask­ing for your help

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - News - BY CAMERON PROBERT cprobert@tric­i­ty­her­ald.com Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402; Twit­ter: @cameron­cprobert

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.

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.

This is only one of sev­eral times when sonar would have helped the Columbia Basin Dive Res­cue with re­cov­er­ies. When some­one dis­ap­pears un­der the wa­ter, it can take days for the body to be re­cov­ered.

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.

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