Many public safety dive teams, police and sheriffs departments, and government agencies are acquiring side scan sonar systems to assist in their underwater search and survey operations.
Side scan is the ideal tool for these operations because it produces detailed images of the underwater environment regardless of water clarity. In addition, the sonar is able to search large areas quickly, scanning several hundred feet of ocean, lake, or river bottom with each pass of the boat. Side scan can easily locate a variety of targets including sunken boats, submerged vehicles, and drowning victims. It is also an excellent choice for inspection of dams, piers, seawalls, pipelines, and other underwater structures.
The side scans available today are relatively easy to operate, but there is a learning curve. Most personnel assigned to run these sonars have no prior experience using this type of equipment. Although many teams teach themselves how to use a side scan, hands-on training provided by experienced operators can get the team up to speed very quickly. One company now offering sonar training is Lifeguard Systems in New York. Lifeguard was founded by Walt “Butch” Hendrick in the early 1970s. Butch has devoted his life to teaching diving, rescue, recovery, and diver safety. Over the past 40 years he has trained thousands of police, fire, EMS, military, and sport divers across the US and in 15 other countries. His clients include New York Fire Department Rescue Team, members of the FAA, and the US Parks Department. In 1987 Andrea Zafares joined the Lifeguard team and become second lead trainer, author, and program creator. Andrea began her career teaching diving with Dr. Lee Somers and Karl Huggins at the University of Michigan’s Scientific Diving Program.
In the last few years the company has received an increasing number of inquiries for sonar training as more teams add this equipment. In response, Mr. Hendrick contacted JW Fishers Mfg, a leading supplier of side scan systems to these communities. Fishers already had an in-house course teaching sonar operation to customers, but more groups were requesting on-site training, especially those overseas. Lifeguard was the perfect match to provide these services, and the two companies agreed to partner in supplying equipment and training.
One of the first organizations Lifeguard trained was the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has vast responsibilities including maintenance of the state’s 12,712 bridges. NCDOT purchased Fishers SSS-600K with adjustable transducers, which makes it possible for the sonar to scan vertical structures. With this capability the DOT can inspect the supports of any bridge that crosses over water, or survey an area prior to the construction of a new bridge. Owning the sonar allows the department’s engineers to perform inspections at a moments notice, instead of waiting for a contractor. Other key features of their system are a Splashproof computer, handy to have when operating the sonar from a small open boat, and mapping software which shows the track of the boat moving over the search area and the swath being scanned.
Another agency that received Lifeguard training is Ulster County Sheriffs Department located in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The sheriffs department acquired Fishers dual frequency SSS-100K/600K as it gives them the high resolution needed to find small targets like drowning victims and weapons, but also the long range capability to search large areas quickly when looking for sunken vessels or downed aircraft. A longer cable and a depressor wing were added making it possible to tow the sonar at depths over 100 feet.
Recently the Lifeguard team travelled half way around the world to provide training in Indonesia. This southeastern Asian country between Australia and Malaysia is an archipelago made up of more than 17,000 islands. The National Search and Rescue Agency of Indonesia purchased a quantity of Fishers dual frequency side scan sonars and underwater video systems for their teams across the country. More than 30 members of the agency’s search teams were brought together for an intensive Lifeguard training course covering operation of the various equipment and the best techniques to perform an effective search.