Harrison County Fire Department in Mississippi is a community surrounded by water, and as Fire Chief Pat Sullivan stated, “We’ve been in the business of search and rescue forever.” Dedicated to the safety of both the community and its first responders, Sullivan added, “We always looked for technology to give us an advantage.”
When involved in a drowning, vehicle in the water or a weapon search in the water, dive teams are necessary for the search. However, in scenarios with limited visibility or swift waters, search can be challenging for the dive teams. This led the department to look into remotely operated vehicles to assist dive teams.
These first underwater drones were smaller and included a camera system, lights and a gripper to search an area remotely. With these ROVs, the fire department could search with the camera and use the gripper to attach to whatever they found down there, including a weapon or even a body.
“We started using that and had success with that,” Sullivan noted. However, this smaller model had difficulty staying in one place during swift currents. Therefore, the department switched to a larger model, the Revolution; it is better for deeper and swifter waters.
These underwater drones are an incredibly important asset to the community during tragedies. For instance, if there is a drowning and the department knows it will be a recovery mission, not a rescue, they want to recover the body as quickly as possible for the family and not be searching for hours or even days.
“It’s safer for personnel and reduces the suffering a family has waiting,” he emphasized.
With the ROV, the department can get down into the water when a diver might have a challenge getting in. When the water gets cold, it reduces the time a diver can stay in the water. The last thing the department wants is for a tragedy to turn worse by putting a diver in danger. While a diver is limited in the time they can spend underwater due to temperature, time and oxygen tanks, an ROV can easily go down and search an area regardless of these factors for four to five hours.
Regardless of the situation, a ROV can provide reconnaissance of the sea bed floor and subsurface before a diver goes down so they can better manage expectations of the situation. The department can review the situation and see what the conditions and hazards are. Plans can then be altered depending on the riskiness of the situation.
If water is contaminated, the department cannot send a diver into it; however, the ROV can go down and assess the situation. The ROV also assists the department in monitoring the diver when they are underwater and provides voice communication with them.
In specific situations, the ROV can assist in a plane crash. With pieces of the plane breaking off underwater, it can be dangerous for a diver to enter the water. While this is not a common situation, Sullivan admits it has proven helpful in a few instances. When there is a drowning, the ROV can bring up a body, depending on the size. However, in most instances, the ROV will locate the body, and the diver will follow the drone underwater, making it safer for the diver and making the diver’s time underwater significantly shorter.
In the Harrison County Fire Department, there are currently three ROV operators. They team up with law enforcement, other area dive teams and the Department of Natural Resources to work missions and accidents. Currently, Sullivan stated Harrison County is the only one with their specific ROVs in the three coastal counties. As such, they receive many calls from neighboring agencies for assistance. They work with these other agencies to use sonar and underwater mapping equipment to, as Sullivan explained, “paint a picture underwater where we can’t see to make a better plan.” Once the ROV is deployed, he mentioned it is “almost like driving a car underwater.”
The training for the ROV is “old school,” Sullivan commented, with much of it being hands-on training. No certification school is necessary. Operators simply take part in hands-on training in which they put the underwater drone into different scenarios and run it through various simulations.
“Every time we put it in the water, we learn something from it, and we get better at it,” he stressed.
The reason the underwater drone is so successful is that it promotes dive team safety and can cover a larger area. The purpose is “trying to adapt the latest technology to our department and to bring the best technology we can to whatever the situation is,” Sullivan emphasized.
Since drones have a significant cost at $30,000, it is important that departments are willing to share their equipment and technology. Sullivan admitted mutual aid and contacts between departments are important so each department does not have to spend the money on each device. Harrison County is willing to take their drone wherever they can to help.
Sullivan knew there was a need for the underwater drone, and he wanted to address that need so he made it a budget item. While he knew budgeting for it would be difficult, his goal was for the department to do what they needed to do in order to get the drone. They have now had the drones for two to three years.
While it is not something the department uses every day, Sullivan would rather live by the Boy Scout motto and “be prepared.” On top of search and rescue missions, the underwater drone can also assist in inspections of bridges and beams to show engineers if it is safe and give them a better view. Even when they are not using it, it gives the department and community peace of mind, knowing it is available in their toolbox when they do. The goal for Sullivan is to expand the availability and use of the drone. “The reality is we will have to use it,” Sullivan stated.
“People need to understand it’s not something you’re going to use every day, but it’s still useful,” Sullivan emphasized.
He recommends when a community considers getting an underwater drone or similar technology, multiple communities work together to acquire it and train together for it because it may not be fitted for each community. Before spending the money, Sullivan recommended speaking with other departments and doing research to see if it is necessary for that department. However, if it is, teaming up can expand the benefits to multiple communities. He stressed the exceptional relationship Harrison County has with its board of supervisors in allowing the fire department to purchase items that are beneficial to the community as a whole.
While it does not replace dive teams, these underwater drones make their jobs safer and more successful. When it comes to using the drones, Sullivan stated, “Anything I can do to reduce risk to personnel, I have an obligation to do that. Obligation to get tools to make first responders safer.”