Underwater cameras, sonar latest addition to Howard fire department's water rescue crews

Climbing aboard a rescue boat, five-year Howard County paramedic Andrew Froom sits in the driver's seat and starts the Yamaha jet-propelled motor. Lowered into the water, the engine's growl softens as the boat glides across a lake, creating ripples across the calm surface.

Sunlight reflection and murky waters make it difficult to see far below the surface, but Froom says the Howard fire department's latest water rescue sonar and underwater camera equipment enhances emergency responses when saving lives of people and animals.

On May 25, special operations Capt. Vince Baker unveiled the new remotely operated vehicle underwater camera, known as the ROV, and the side-scan sonar-detecting rescue boat at the Centennial Lake boat ramp in Ellicott City.

Fire Chief John Butler and County Executive Allan Kittleman were there to see the unveiling.

Using underwater cameras and sonar technology, water rescue crews are shortening time periods in finding, rescuing and recovering drowning victims. Baker said the equipment also assists in police investigations, hazmat detection and bridge and dam damage assessments and inspections.

"[Divers are] crawling through the water and it takes multiple hours to just eliminate this area" where victims were last seen, Baker said. "When we put the ROV into the water, we immediately see targets and images on the screen and eliminate them."

Purchased using department budget funds, the side-scan sonar cost roughly $2,400, Baker said, and an additional $80,000 for the ROV and its sonar. The equipment was put into service in mid-October.

On the boat, a small screen sits above the steering wheel, painting a picture of what lies below the water. Buttons to the right of the screen allow Froom to adjust the sonar's frequency, image color and depth, which are shown at the bottom of the screen.

Sonar capabilities then pick up any object at the bottom of the lake, including rocks and logs.

"If somebody said, 'Hey, I saw somebody in a canoe, they tipped over and went under in this general area,' we're going to start laying out a search grid, crisscross and start covering the entire area," Froom said. "The best way of figuring out where the person is, is by actually seeing the shadow that he makes."

After narrowing the search or locating a victim, personnel will place the 13.5-pound yellow ROV in the water, providing them with a 360-degree view from its camera and sonar. An attachable tether keeps the miniature submarine secured to the boat, allowing it to reach up to 320 feet.

Froom said the underwater camera can also operates in swift waters, such as rivers or flooded roadways, and withstand temperatures between -10 and 180 degrees. The device travels at a top speed of 4.2 knots, powered by three propellers – two in the rear and one on top.

Paramedic Gavin Fogarty, a nine-year veteran of the department, said the equipment benefits not only victims, but also water rescue personnel.

"It eliminates the need to actually send a human being under the water to search for something," Fogarty said. "That is actually incredibly difficult. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and it's actually not without a great deal of risk."

Risks then disappear, Baker added, exchanging underwater training time and costs for successfully completed and safe search and rescues.

"Those two together take many, many hours and costly training away and keep our people out of harm's way as we're looking for people," he said.

In agreement with fire officials, Kittleman said the equipment is a true benefit to the department and community. But, he reminded families to stay safe this summer as they spend more time in the water.

"If you have children with you, make sure you're with them all the time," Kittleman said. "The one thing my father always put in my mind was safety first. You can have a great time, but be safe first. We are just very fortunate that we have folks who are forward thinking because you want to have equipment like this that you, hopefully, never have to really use."

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