Ga. dive team will use underwater drone to respond to drownings

Hall County Fire Rescue says its divers will operate a drone that can reach depths of up to 305 meters and has a camera, a sonar system and a robotic arm


Ben Anderson
The Times

HALL COUNTY, Ga. — Hall County's Marine Rescue Team will replace its dive team with an underwater drone that will be used to try to rescue and recover drowning victims.

Hall County Fire Chief Chris Armstrong said there will be few changes.

"The only difference is that rather than send a person down in dive gear to either do a rescue or recovery of a person underwater, we're using an underwater drone to do that instead," said Hall County Fire Chief Chris Armstrong.

"The only difference is that rather than send a person down in dive gear to either do a rescue or recovery of a person underwater, we're using an underwater drone to do that instead," Armstrong said.

That means the fire department will no longer have divers who are trained and equipped to jump in the water and rescue people who have gone underwater or recover people who have drowned.

Divers will be replaced by a $100,000 underwater drone that can be deployed in three minutes or less and reach depths of up to 305 meters, according to the department. The drone is equipped with a camera, a sonar system and a robotic arm that can grab onto drowning victims and tow them to the surface. In effect, divers will become drone operators.

The robot is expected to arrive in January, and Armstrong said they will spend the six months after that training firefighters to operate it, in time for Memorial Day. The fire department will also be purchasing a boat with a fire hose that is expected to cost around $650,000.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman B.J. Williams said they are not planning to make any changes to their Underwater Search and Rescue dive team.

Some people are worried about these changes, including Todd Jordan, an emergency physician at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center who says he and his wife are certified dive instructors who have been training the fire department's dive team for the last 10 years.

In a post in the Lanier Lake Life Facebook group, he wrote, "If the Public Safety Divers respond to a boat fire and see burnt victims jump overboard, they cannot go underwater after them. If there is a drowning, they will have to stand on the shore or stay on the boat without attempting to save a life. They will only be able to operate a robot. If they respond to a jumper on a bridge and see them jump, they cannot dive to save them. If they respond to a car off a bridge in ten feet of water with children trapped in car seats, they cannot help. Robots cannot enter a car to save a human child in a car seat. Robots cannot untangle themselves when they are trapped in fishing line and trees. It IS possible to save a person in this lake."

He added: "As a citizen of Hall County, I find this very concerning. I feel that all the residents in North Georgia, who frequent Lake Lanier, should be aware of this potentially dangerous change and that they will no longer be protected by a Public Safety Dive Team."

Jordan reiterated those concerns in an interview with The Times.

Armstrong said their divers haven't saved a single drowning victim in the 20 years since the county's Marine Rescue Team was founded. In the past five years, there have been 32 drownings, and the dive team has responded to 10 of them. They have recovered four bodies but saved zero lives.

Armstrong said he isn't sure whether the underwater drone might have more success, but that doesn't mean they won't try.

"We're still doing rescues," he said. "We're just changing the way we're rescuing people."


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Lake Lanier is one of the most visited lakes with 12 million enjoying its waters annually.

In 2022, six people drowned in the lake.

The decision is also motivated by concerns about diver safety.

"One of the most risky things we do is diving in that lake," Armstrong said. "If I spend a lot of time, energy and money diving in that lake and I haven't saved anybody — and all I'm doing is, unfortunately, bringing deceased victims out of the water — rather than risk my divers, why would I not use technology to do that instead?"

Commission Chairman Richard Higgins echoed Armstrong's concerns about diver safety. "It's really dangerous to dive in Lake Lanier," he said.

Commissioner Shelly Echols said the decision to replace the dive team with a robot is supported by the data.

"People are expecting that this team goes out and they dive and they rescue people drowning, and the data shows that that just doesn't happen," she said, adding that by the time the dive team arrives, assesses the area and puts on all their gear, the operation inevitably shifts from rescue to recovery. Armstrong said a rescue becomes a recovery 30 minutes after a person goes under.

Echols said she is frustrated that none of the people raising concerns on social media have reached out to commissioners or county staff.

"The rumor mill goes running rampant and that's really frustrating as an elected official, that people would rather just take to social media and spread rumors instead of actually calling or emailing to find out for sure what's going on and why things are being done."

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(c)2022 The Times, Gainesville, Ga.
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