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Charleston police to get submarine robot to aid underwater searches

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Finding a pistol at the bottom of the murky, mucky Kanawha River can be nearly impossible for police divers.You battle swift currents, struggle to maneuver in your insulated wetsuit, gloves and full face mask, and feel your way along because you can only see inches away.Members of the Charleston Police Department's dive team will soon have a new tool that could revolutionize underwater search efforts. City officials will open bids Tuesday morning for a remote operated vehicle (ROV), which will allow divers to stay dry while looking for sunken weapons, vehicles or, in the worst case, bodies."Usually, it's weapons or other things," Police Chief Brent Webster said. "Suspects or witnesses tell us 'it's over here.'" Then, up till now, divers go in and start to search.Police divers have wanted an ROV for several years, but the high price tag put it out of reach of the department's regular budget. The city last month won a port security grant through the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the cost."We're fortunate to get this grant," Webster said. "This allows us to do something we can't otherwise do."Depending on the amount of the lowest bid, the city could spend about $50,000 of the grant for the JW Fishers SeaLion-2 system specified in the bid documents.
According to JW Fishers, the SeaLion-2 is the company's top-of-the-line mobile underwater camera system.Resembling a bright yellow Electrolux vacuum cleaner, it comes with front and back wide-angle color video cameras that an operator can pan and tilt, twin halogen lights on the front, a ring of LEDs on the back, and horizontal and vertical thrusters. It's attached to an umbilical up to 1,500 feet long -- more than a quarter-mile -- to its control panel where the operator steers by joysticks and watches the progress on a 15-inch monitor.An optional sonar system that scans the river bottom, a metal detector and manipulator arm complete the package."It's an amazing piece of equipment that will increase visibility 100 percent so divers won't have to be in the water all the time," said Lynn Hartsog, grant writer and administrator in the Police Department."This is to be used through the area, not just in Charleston," she said. And not just for criminal investigations. "Any threat of bombs, any type of terrorism, suspicious activity around the Interstate bridges or chemical plants."In addition to its chemical plants and Interstate crossings, the grant application points out, the Kanawha River is the state's largest and most important inland waterway, a major barge shipping channel and home to the state capital.The $135,601 grant will also pay for a host of other pricey diving and related supplies -- masks, scuba gear, a lighting system, rugged laptops and a surface-air-supply diving system, plus training for the dive team.Reach Jim Balow at or 304-348-5102.
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