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More than half of divers resign after Ga. FD adds underwater drone

Officials said the drone is safer, quicker and cheaper; Hall County still has a dive team within the sheriff’s office

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By Ben Anderson
The Times, Gainesville, Ga.

HALL COUNTY, Ga. — More than half of the divers on Hall County’s Marine Rescue Team resigned earlier this month after the fire department announced that it would replace them with a $100,000 underwater drone for search and rescue missions, according to information from the fire department and open records obtained by The Times.

Kimberlie Ledsinger, a spokeswoman for Hall County Fire Rescue, confirmed that 15 of 23 divers resigned from the Marine Rescue Team. The team has since added positions and members and now has five openings left, she said.

“Effective immediately I am resigning from the dive team,” Clint Carey, dive supervisor, wrote in a Dec. 2 email to fire department administrators. “I do not agree with the direction it is heading.”

The reason for the change, officials said, is that diving in the water to save people is almost always futile. Commissioner Shelly Echols cited fire department data showing that not a single drowning victim had been saved in the past five years. The drone is safer, quicker and cheaper in the long run, officials said. Plus, Echols said, the county still has a dive team in the Sheriff’s Office’s Underwater Search and Rescue Team.

The county has spent more than $141,000 over the last five years on the Marine Rescue Team, according to open records, the vast majority of which was used to buy and maintain diving equipment.

Many divers aren’t happy about being replaced by a robot.

Shortly after the announcement on Dec. 1, divers began emailing their resignations, according to open records.

Alton Lee, Jacob Trites, Cody Long and Jonathan Barton also resigned.

“I cannot get behind the new mission and direction for the Marine Rescue team,” firefighter Jacob Trites wrote in an email. “I have been active on the team for a number of years and I personally know that diving has made a difference in some individuals lives (sic) and gave them a chance to live another day.”

With the underwater drone, he added, “I will not be able to go home at night knowing that I gave that victim every chance they had to see another day.”

Likewise, Carey wrote that the underwater drone performed poorly during a demonstration. It took the drone more than 30 minutes to do what he could have done in 5 minutes, he wrote, and that was with “the best operator in the country running it.”

That operator was Waylon Price, the sales manager for Oceanbotics, who spoke to The Times about the demonstration.

“I’d stepped away to use the restroom and make a phone call, and when I returned they had hidden a mannequin in the water, and they wanted to see what it would look like from start to finish — from opening the box, putting it together, deploying it, putting it out and finding the mannequin,” Price said.

He said it took about 20 minutes from start to finish.

He wouldn’t say whether the drone is meant to serve as a viable replacement for a human dive team. “What I can say is I consider it a valuable tool for any dive team, with or without divers,” he said.

The drone is expected to arrive in January, and Marine Rescue staff will receive training so they can operate it in time for Memorial Day. Price said the drone requires minimal training. An Xbox-like controller is used to operate it.

The fire department will also be purchasing a $650,000 fire boat that will act like an ambulance on the water with a powerful firehose.

When the changes were announced, the public messaging from officials was scattered.

Commissioner Shelly Echols said the Marine Rescue Team would no longer attempt to rescue drowning victims and would instead focus solely on recovery. Fire Chief Chris Armstrong, however, said that was not the case. They would still try to rescue drowning victims — they would just use a robot to do it instead.

Open records show why the public messaging may have been bungled.

In a Nov. 30 email to county administrators, Armstrong wrote, “I want to be careful of straying too far from important details. While I do believe we can spin this in a positive manner, we should not shy aways from some negative details that were key decision points of the ( Board of Commissioners) to approve this change.”

To put a positive spin on the messaging, he recommended they avoid saying the Marine Rescue Team’s mission was changing. Instead, he wrote, they should say that the team is expanding its operations.

“If we use the term ‘Expand’ services rather than change of Mission, it could be construed that we are adding the (remotely operated vehicle) to existing services rather than using (it) to replace the dive rescue services. Which is truly a change in service or mission approved by the BOC,” Armstrong wrote.

Additionally, the press release was initially edited to reflect Armstrong’s suggestions but the edits didn’t appear in the final release.

The original title, " Hall County’s Marine Rescue team Mission Change,” was edited by former Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley to say, " Hall County’s Marine Rescue Team expanding capabilities.”

But the final press release kept the original title. The expansion language didn’t make it into the final paragraph either, which still read, “the mission of our Marine Rescue Team will be changing slightly.”

Armstrong was on vacation and not available for an interview.

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