Dive Teams Train with New Technology
Dive teams for the Guilford Fire Department (GFD) and the Police Department (GPD) have begun training with a new device that will allow emergency personnel to more quickly locate missing people and objects underwater, potentially saving lives. The new device, called Aqua Eye, is a camera system that allows rescuers to rapidly and clearly search underwater drastically reducing response times and the risk to personnel.
The two dive teams are part of a regional dive team that also includes members of the Branford Fire Department and is coordinated by the GFD. The unit responds to calls for rescue and recovery across the shoreline, according to Guilford Assistant Fire Chief Michael Shove.
“We are very fortunate to have this regional dive team, we have about 22 to 24 people on the team. We have three Guilford police officers, about 16 to 18 Guilford Fire Department members, and then two firefighters from Branford,” said Shove. “We added the three [police departments] and Branford in the last five years to enhance our capabilities.”
According to Shove, the team is called out for rescue and recovery efforts, and a typical call is a search for a missing person underwater, including falls through the ice calls. Shove said that the State Police normally handle evidence searches, but that team members are all trained and involved in searches for objects and evidence, including vehicles in the water.
The unique partnership allows the respective departments to coordinate responsibilities and logistics on any search and or rescue, said Shove.
According to Shove, area waters are rarely clear whether in fresh or salt water making even short dives and shallow dives extremely difficult and hazardous for personnel.
“It is similar to firefighting in that is usually a zero-visibility environment. Often you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. It’s not like diving in the Caribbean. We work in colder environments too, but it is similar to a smoke-filled environment. There are really a lot of components to a search. To get just one diver in the water, we normally want a 90 percent backup, so that means really three divers to put just diver into the water. And that doesn’t include people driving the boat, and the other logistical support personnel.”
According to Shove, the ability to obtain and train with equipment that allows for safer and faster searches will be a critical component in future incidents.
“I was part of recent training and this Aqua Eye was part of that. This uses AI to rapidly search areas and provides the highest probability from the sonar return of where an object might be located. It is kind of like a thermal imager that a firefighter would use in a smoke-filled fire. This is not thermal imaging, it is sonar, but it is comparable in how it scans,” said Shove. “Ordinarily with side-scan sonar you are really looking down the beam, like a flashlight beam, and so you are only seeing what the sonar is pointed at, with this device it is hand-held and you can scan from the surface across a wide area and easily see what is out there. It is a very new tool for dive teams, and it creates efficiencies. Aqua Eye can really shorten search times, and could potentially save lives. It can pin point any object, you can almost walk a diver to an object via our underwater communications. We can really save that long sweeping search and very quickly and safely search. And it is easy to use, very user friendly. We have been quite impressed with how it operated during training.”
Knowing where not to look is just as important as knowing where to look, said Shove.
“It is so quick, and that ability to be able to say with a high level of confidence that there’s nothing out there. Being able to move and better focused a search area. Just getting a diver into the water can take an hour, but with this you can do so much and so quickly. It is really a great piece of technology,” Shove said.
The Aqua Eye, distributed by Barrier Waterman, is hand held and extremely user friendly according to emergency personnel. Most importantly, however, it can almost instantly scan large underwater areas without the need to send divers into potentially dangerous situations.
The device operates near the surface of the water and provides a 150 meter (450 foot) field of scan underwater. By the time a dive team without this device could even perform safety checks on their equipment, the Aqua Eye would have already accurately scanned hundreds of yards of underwater search area, said Shove.
Guilford Chief of Police, Butch Hyatt, said this critical advance in search technology will significantly increase both department’s ability to conduct searches.
“When people think about diving, they picture jumping off a boat in the Bahamas where the water is crystal clear and you are seeing fish swim by. But very seldom does a diver on a team like this experience those types of conditions,” said Hyatt. “The waters in our area are for the most part consistently murky with very low visibility. If you can see a foot in front of your face, you’re lucky. These types of dives are normally very difficult. This hand-held sonar will help identify objects underwater much more safely and easily.”