ROVs in the Public Safety World

By: Wes Foster

As public safety divers, we know our mission. Our ultimate goal is to conduct criminal investigations where the crime scene is underwater. We strive to provide closure to families involving recovery situations. Our other mission is to provide investigators and prosecutors with the information they need in order to evaluate all possible evidence and successfully prosecute cases in a court setting.

Technology is affecting our lives every day in the public safety arena.

Advancements in technology can be seen in everything that we do at work. Think about records management systems, computer-aided dispatch, global positioning systems, body cameras, in-car videos, electronic citations, and vehicle collision reports. What about smartphones and mobile internet connectivity? How about the ability to live stream video for an evolving incident to a mobile command post or incident command center? The list goes on and on.

Let’s take a moment to think about the public safety dive realm.

Quality training has increased exponentially. More and more agencies are beginning to understand the increased requirements for training and the proper equipment in order for public safety dive teams to perform their jobs in a safe manner. We are required to have training by nationally recognized agencies such as the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire Protection Administration (NFPA). Our equipment should match the level of responsibility we have.

Diving equipment technology is advancing at a rapid rate, just like the previously mentioned technology. While the equipment has been around for years, much of it is becoming more mainstream and more specialized at the same time – and more affordable. Items that immediately come to mind are underwater lighting, full-face masks, contaminated water dry suits, and underwater communications systems. One piece of technology that is often overlooked but can be highly useful during underwater operations and investigations, is an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

Several years ago, after I joined my current team, we went on a tour of the dive locker in our warehouse. I saw shelves of available equipment but the things that jumped out at me were several large rolling waterproof boxes. I inquired about what the boxes were and was told it was an ROV we had acquired on a grant several years prior. As most people in the public safety area, I was curious and asked to see the ROV.  We took the boxes off the shelves and I saw an ROV that you would usually see on TV shows, with several accessories and spare field repair parts. I asked why it was in storage and not on the response truck. My question wasn’t ignored and over time we had several long conversations about placing the ROV back in service.

Eventually, our policies and procedures were revised to include the ROV in our operations.

After arriving on scene and during the initial assessment, absent exigent circumstances, the ROV is assembled and placed in the water before diver entry. This allows the Safety Officer, Supervisor, and Officer in Charge to assess the safety of and the conditions the divers will be confronted with. Turbidity and bottom topography can be further evaluated to determine possible issues such as obstructions and assist with determining the best search pattern to utilize. As we recall from training, every dive location is different and each one poses its own challenges. Even the same location will have separate issues when performing multiple dives.

ROVs have the ability to not only assist in the observation of obstructions or water conditions, but also to scan, locate, identify, and recover possible evidence. Remotely operated vehicles have accessories that can be attached for additional capabilities. Numerous options for the public safety field such as additional cameras, lights, manipulator arms, hull crawlers, radiation detectors, explosive detectors, chemical detectors, GPS tethers, and imaging sonar are available. Each accessory should be evaluated to determine if it would be of assistance in your response area.

Most remotely operated vehicles have the capability to record the video that is being viewed topside.

Many units also have the capability to record the topside audio. The audio and video should be recorded in all situations where law enforcement action is being taken. Videos present what the ROV operator sees underwater, and what the divers are experiencing. In some situations, this video will be dark and murky. Some videos will show nothing but what the viewer thinks is a wall of muddy water. This video can, and should, be used in court. Many jurors are used to seeing crime scene investigations on popular television shows. While we know the vast majority of calls dive teams are involved in are not dispatched, answered, investigated and closed in one hour, these videos can hold important information and evidence needed to proceed. Being able to show exactly how an item was located before recovery can be priceless during the investigation. The audio and video recordings will give the investigators, prosecutors and jurors a complete picture of the scene and ensure the situation encountered is being conveyed properly and completely.

Just as with many of the tools we use, at home and at work, the tool is only as good as the operator. ROVs are not inexpensive. They require proper setup in order to ensure proper operation. Our team learned very quickly that simply being able to set up and place the system in the water was not enough. Just like all of the other tools we use at work, we needed properly trained ROV operators that understood the setup, capabilities and operation of the complete system to ensure a successful mission.  The training must also include information on the operator’s responsibilities after the mission. The system should be properly disassembled, cleaned, and inspected for maintenance issues before storage. This will ensure the system is ready for the next mission. Without properly trained operators, you will most likely not have a successful mission. We worked with a current ROV instructor for the model we have in order to create a Unique Specialty/Ops Certification through International Training for our operators. All of our operators are certified through ERDI in a 40-hour course as ERD VideoRay Pro 4 Pilot Technicians.

One of the issues surrounding the ROV will be funding.

Most agencies and departments have limited budgets. This is especially true for volunteer teams. Research local, state, and federal grants to see which ones are available in your area.  Many companies and non-profit organizations will also provide funding for public safety training or equipment. Make contact with the companies and research other funding opportunities on the internet. Several small donations can add up to the total amount needed. For operations, as well as grant applications, look into forming a regional team or entering into formal mutual-aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions.

Purchasing an ROV as a group covering a large area will provide multiple agencies with a capability that most likely would not be approved for smaller or single teams. If your team routinely provides assistance to an agency or agencies that do not have PSD teams, try to include letters of support from the agency leader. When preparing funding applications, take into account not only the initial purchase, but also the ongoing and recurring costs. As I stated before, there will need to be trained operators. Routine maintenance along with field repairs and manufacturer service will also require funding. An annual maintenance contract or extended warranty with the manufacturer may be an option to discuss.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to other agencies

If you find an opportunity or situation where you believe an ROV may assist you in an investigation but do not have one in your inventory, don’t be afraid to reach out to other agencies, especially those specializing in wildlife or natural resources management. Another avenue to look at for assistance is colleges and universities. Just as with the previously mentioned environmental agencies, many colleges and universities have courses in marine science or engineering and may have the equipment available. Commercial dive training facilities or companies are also available throughout the country.

Nothing is perfect in every situation

There are numerous styles, types, and sizes of ROVs. Each one will have its own pros and cons that you must assess.  Spend time doing your research and call the sales staff for the companies after you narrow the field. After you select the one that is appropriate for your jurisdiction and surrounding area and obtain the funding, put it to good use and complete the mission — safely!

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