INDIANAPOLIS — When someone drowns in Indiana, conservation officer Jim Hash is tasked with finding the body.
He’s been called four times since July, including in August when 56-year-old David Fiege went missing while paddleboarding on Eagle Creek Reservoir. Without any witnesses to help — and with 2.3 square miles of water to search — authorities faced a tough challenge.
With the assistance of a helicopter, boats and sonar equipment, Fiege’s body was found within two days. Officials also relied on one particularly important tool: an ROV — short for underwater remotely operated vehicle — which functions like a submarine drone.
Weighing 14 pounds, or about the size of a beer cooler, the device glides through water with propellers while using sonar and a camera to locate victims’ bodies, cars, guns and other evidence. The drone allows officers to work more quickly while making the job less risky for divers.
“The most important part of our job is to bring closure to the family members,” said Hash, who piloted a drone during the search for Fiege’s body. “Paramount to that, is the safety of our officers.”
Divers are in harm’s way the moment they enter the water.
Murky water with zero visibility. Waterways loaded with tree limbs, fishing line and other unseen obstacles.
In the past, divers would line up tethered to each other with ropes and slowly search underwater to find a victim’s body. Divers had to take breaks and refill their air tanks. A search even in the best conditions could take days.
Now, most recovery operations are over within a few hours.
“These are dives that require heavy exertion in zero-visibility water with entanglement risks,” said Fishers Fire Chief Steve Orusa, a diver for 30 years who authored a training manual on the subject. “If you can use sonar, boat-based or on a remotely operated vehicle, now you have the ability to keep the divers out of the water.”
Technology has made diving safer, but the equipment came after two Indianapolis firefighters were killed in training accidents.
Paul Jolliff became entangled 48 feet underwater on June 14, 2002, during what would have been his last training dive before becoming certified. His diving partner swam to the surface and yelled for help. But without a line or radio, rescue divers couldn’t find Jolliff’s exact location. The 37-year-old father of two was lost.
Two years earlier, Warren “J.C.” Smith died in a similar training accident. Both deaths were ruled accidental, but lawsuits and investigations led to a statewide overhaul in training and an improvement in safety measures.
The biggest change was the investment in new equipment. Before Jolliff’s death, Indiana dive teams didn’t own sonar equipment. Now, most Indiana agencies have boat-mounted sonar equipment that can scan under the water.
But Indiana conservation officers are the only ones with access to submarine drones. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources bought its first ROV for about $150,000 about six years ago. A few years later, the department bought another one.
The two drones — one stationed in the north near Lake Michigan and the other south near the Ohio River — have been called in for 23 drownings this year.
While most in the diving community agree that the devices reduce risk to divers, there are differing opinions as to just how effective they can be.
Michael Gast, president of the National Academy of Police Diving, is among those who are skeptical.
“The man in the water is more capable than the ROV,” Gast said. “It’s safer in that you are not putting divers down. Is the capability more effective? I would say no.”
Properly trained divers, Gast said, use their senses and intuition in ways technology can’t. Humans are better at adapting to unforeseen circumstances, he said.
The ROV and boat-mounted sonars, Gast said, are usually paired with laptop computers that break when the wrong parts get wet.
To Hash, though, ROVs are necessary to keep officers safe.
“You have the ability to pinpoint a location before you send divers down,” Hash said. “You don’t put a human being in harm’s way.”
Hash took IndyStar journalists on board a small flat-bottom boat along the Wabash River in Terre Haute on a September day. He was there to assist trainees as they searched for a submerged vehicle.
Hash guided the boat to rest near the shore. He connected a cable to the drone before pulling a cord to start the small generator that provides power.
He gently placed the drone in the water and picked up the controller: a metal box with a joystick and knobs.
Hash sat looking at two screens, one displaying a sonar image and the other showing camera video. He moved the joystick and knobs to guide the drone through the water.
Cars are easy.
Hash found it in less than 10 minutes.
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2cYm0ZI
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.