Bethel Search and Rescue Trains with New ROV

by Charles Enoch on February 3, 2016

Tom Crossman trains BSAR members to use the ROV at the swimming pool. Photo courtesy of BSAR

Tom Crossman trains BSAR members to use the ROV at the swimming pool. Photo courtesy of BSAR

Bethel Search and Rescue has a new tool they hope will help increase their chances of bringing missing bodies home. They also hope it will help them do it with much less effort and cost.

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Bethel Search and Rescue members trained for four days to learn how to use their recently purchased VideoRay Pro4 with a BlueView Sonar. It’s an underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that can maneuver and provide searchers with sonar and visual images. Bethel search and rescue member Fritz Charles says they couldn’t have been able to get it without help.

“We acquired this on behalf of the businesses that contributed to this equipment which is worth, brand new,  nearly 200 thousand dollars,” said Charles.

VideoRay operator Tom Crossman of Duluth, Missouri was in Bethel as an instructor for the training. They learned the different components of the machine in a classroom setting, then they learned to operate it underwater at the swimming pool, then they practiced piloting it against the river current below Napaskiak. This isn’t the first time Crossman has operated his ROV against the Kuskokwim tides.

“We did a search here a year ago with my ROV, and when they first got to see the technology they were then able to see how it can really help them. I think with the amount of water operations that you have in this area in the Delta, it’s gonna be a huge help to search and rescue,” said Crossman.

Early last year, local search and rescue crews, with the help of Crossman and his ROV, recovered the remains of George Evan below the Kuskokwok Slough, one of three that fell into an open hole and died just above Kwethluk early last winter. Since then, BSAR been fundraising to buy one of their own.

When attempting a wintertime recovery for remains, area search and rescue crews would put in backbreaking work. Search and rescue member Perry Barr says the process involves cutting out trenches in the ice with chainsaws, drilling holes every few feet to feed the line under the ice from one trench to the other, and then using the rope to drag a bar with hooks to try and snag the body.

“And it’s a repetitious effort that you have to do over and over and over and over. With this ROV we don’t have to dig those trenches anymore, we can just put holes in the water, we can look out with our ROV to about 300 feet, or 250 feet, depending on our tethering system,” said Barr

Barr says the BlueView Sonar can also provide a 300-foot-wide map of the water subsurface.

A picture of the ROV's sonar mapping of the swimming pool. Pool lifeguard Maurice Pete can be observed through sonar. Photo courtesy of BSAR.

A picture of the ROV’s sonar mapping of the swimming pool. Pool lifeguard Maurice Pete can be observed through sonar. Photo courtesy of BSAR.

The Bethel Search and Rescue says the ROV is likely the second one in the state. The first one was purchased last year by the Kodiak Area Native Association and given to the Village Public Safety Officer program.

Barr also says, when able and necessary, they plan to deploy the ROV to other places in the region that may need it to recover remains. Crossman says he may come back during the summer to help train the local crew to search in open water.

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