Many police and sheriff’s departments, public safety dive teams and government agencies are acquiring ROVs and side scan sonars to assist in their underwater search operations. The ROV is an excellent tool for these operations because unlike a diver, the remote operated vehicle can stay submerged indefinitely and it is not affected by water depth. Powerful thrusters propel the ROV over the bottom as high resolution cameras capture a clear picture of the underwater terrain and send it topside for all to view. Side scan sonars search large areas quickly and produce detailed images of the subsea environment regardless of water clarity.
Most compact, observation class ROVs available today are relatively easy to operate, but there is a learning curve. The same is true of side scan. Typically the personnel assigned to work these systems have no prior experience operating them. Although many teams teach themselves how to run the devices, hands-on training provided by experienced operators can get a team up to speed very quickly. One company now offering ROV and sonar training is Lifeguard Systems in New York. Lifeguard was founded by Walt “Butch” Hendrick in the 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 U.S. Parks Department.
In the last few years the company has received an increasing number of inquiries for ROV and sonar training as more teams add this equipment. In response, Mr. Hendrick contacted JW Fishers Mfg, a leading supplier of these systems to the law enforcement and public safety diving communities. Fishers already had an in-house course teaching customers how to operate the equipment, 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. To compliment their skills Lifeguard brought in William “Skeeter” Porter. His career in public safety diving began in 1989 as volunteer with Charles County Dive Rescue in Maryland, and he quickly rose through the ranks to become chief in 1994. One of his first acts was to bring in Butch to provide training for the team, and the two men became fast friends. In 2005 the rescue group acquired a side scan sonar and Chief Porter began to teach himself how to use it. In two weeks the team had located their first drowning victim and the number grew to four within the first year. To date Porter has been involved in the location of more than 30 victims. In 2008 he completed his NAUI instructor training through Lifeguard and Butch invited him to join the team. With hundreds of hours of sonar ops under his belt, Porter was the perfect addition to the group.
One of the first organizations Lifeguard trained was the Ulster County Sheriffs Department in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The department had acquired Fishers dual frequency side scan sonar as it gives them the high resolution needed to find small targets like drowning victims and weapons, but also has the long range capability to search large areas quickly when looking for sunken vessels, submerged vehicles, or downed aircraft.
Recently the Lifeguard team traveled half way around the world to provide ROV training in Indonesia. This southeastern Asian country between Australia and Malaysia is an archipelago made up of more than 17,000 islands. Two years ago when the country’s National Search and Rescue Agency purchased a quantity of Fishers side scan sonars and underwater video systems, Lifeguard provided on-site training. The agency’s most recent acquisition was a quantity of Fishers ROVs, custom built to meet mission requirements. The highly maneuverable remote controlled vehicles were equipped with four cameras, scanning sonar, a manipulator arm, computer control option, and a variety of other special features. More than 30 members of the agency’s search teams were brought together for an intensive Lifeguard training course covering all aspects of operation and maintenance of the equipment and the best techniques to perform an effective search.