Yankton County Search & Rescue (YCSAR) is utilizing new, remote-operated technology to aid in its mission to keep the public safe.
YCSAR team leader Bryant Jackson and director of Yankton County Emergency Management Paul Scherschligt lauded the new equipment’s impact on the team’s ability to conduct rescue operations.
In December 2016, the county purchased a SeaOtter-2 ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle).
The ROV includes video capabilities and sonar.
Jackson said diving can be extremely dangerous, especially in a river setting.
"There’s a lot of instances where we can’t put divers in the water given the current, water speeds and entanglement hazards," he said. "When we’re diving in the river itself, there’s so much down there still. … There’s a really big safety concern when you want to stick a diver in the water. Objects could move."
He said that, in these situations, the ROV can be extremely helpful.
"What we’d really like to do is narrow down the area before we stick a diver in the water," he said. "We use cadaver dogs to do a lot of that and try to narrow that down even further using the underwater submersible."
Utilizing the submersible itself, Jackson said it uses a piece of technology many already know well.
"Coincidentally enough, it’s controlled by a PlayStation controller, so there’s a lot of familiarity with some folks in being able to control that," he said. "It’s not so much a giant control box that has all these gizmos and gadgets. Having something that people are familiar with makes it a lot more user-friendly in that case. The display links up to the box the controller plugs into so you can see the video feed as you’re driving it, so it’s not unlike a video game."
Jackson said operators begin training on the ROV in a swimming pool before moving up to Lake Yankton and other clearer lakes in the area, then practicing in Lewis & Clark Lake and the Missouri River.
The ROV has yet to assist in a rescue setting — however, it has helped local law enforcement.
"It has been used on a couple of different recovery incidents, specifically a lot of evidence recovery," he said.
One instance occurred last year.
In January 2017, the Alcoa Ice Arena was burglarized and a safe was stolen from the premises. Following the arrests of two suspects that March, one of the suspects admitted to throwing the safe from a dock in Riverside Park into the Missouri River. The YCSAR ROV subsequently located the safe with its contents still inside.
But YCSAR hasn’t limited its new technologies to the water. Last fall, the team received a Matrice 210 aerial drone.
Though unused in a search and rescue operation as of yet, the drone is fitted with a regular 4K camera and a thermal imaging camera. It can remain aloft for up to 38 minutes, depending on conditions.
Jackson said in training, the drone has proven able to easily find people in the middle of a full-bloom cornfield during the day using the infrared camera, and it has proven capable of nighttime searches as well.
Scherschligt called this a huge improvement from the past.
"We had a guy walk out into a cornfield … before the corn came out and was dead-center in the field," Scherschligt said. "(The drone) went up about 300 feet, did a circle and there he was. Before, you started at one end and started walking the whole field and hope you can find him. This was at nighttime that we found this guy. The technology is great."
Due to FAA regulations, Jackson said there’s far more to drone training than simply taking it out for a spin.
"There’s a testing process through the FAA to obtain a remote pilot’s license to operate in that realm — whether it be doing damage assessment or trying to find someone in a cornfield," he said. "(We train) on the ability to fly and maneuver the aircraft as well."
With the drone’s $27,000 price tag, first-time fliers start off training on computer-based flight simulators before handling the drone itself.
Jackson said the new technology comes down to being prepared.
"We preach preparedness," he said. "A lifejacket doesn’t help you being in your boat. The lifejacket helps you when you’re physically wearing it. … We want to ensure that we’re prepared at all times."
While YCSAR gets used to its new equipment, the team is looking for more individuals to join in the coming months.
"Yankton County Search & Rescue is a purely volunteer organization," Jackson said. "We average 25-20 members on an annual basis. With some folks leaving the community through attrition and those types of deals, (we are) looking at adding some more individuals to the team."
He said that anyone interested in being a dedicated volunteer can contact YCSAR on the Yankton County Emergency Management Facebook page.
YCSAR is also set to host an open house for public safety officials March 15 at 6 p.m. at Fire Station 2 to talk about the resources the team can provide other first-responder agencies.
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.