Inside Look: High-tech sonar images help find drowning victims

Locating drowning victims
(Brian Stephenson | WBTV)
(Brian Stephenson | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - What might look like a heartbreaking image of the outline of a man at the bottom of a lake actually brings Charlotte Firefighter Kathleen Lee a little bit of hope.

"I try to treat it as if it were my family member and try to do it as fast and efficient as safe as we possibly can," Lee said.

The work she's talking about is using the department's sonar equipment to spot people who have gone missing on area waterways.

Already this summer more than a half dozen drownings in the area have the rescue and recovery process top of mind for so many people.

The men and women of Charlotte Fire Station 38 took us onto Lake Wylie to show us the high-tech sonar equipment they use to find those who are missing.

"Think of it as having a flashlight coming off each side of the equipment and when you are going through the water the flashlight will cast a shadow when it passes that object.  I read the shadows to determine what the object is," Lee said.

To our untrained eyes it was nearly impossible to make sense of objects she said were schools of fish or parts of trees or tires.

She credits years of training herself by looking at sample images online, and video game playing, with her ability to figure out what the tiny objects are.

"I don't always know that it's a person right away, there have been times I thought I was sure I found a victim and it was a log, but sometimes it is very clear," she told us.

Once the team has an object of interest, they drop a marker down onto the object and then divers head under the surface of the water to check it out.

"This gives you a way to target objects with fewer divers and less time.  We want to find the person we're looking for but we can also do it efficiently and safely by using fewer divers and spending less time in the water," Lee explained.

When asked when she would consider giving up a search, as you can imagine, Lee said she never wants to give up until the team finds who they are looking for.

Lee offered one piece of advice for friends and family of someone who might go into the water and not resurface that may help emergency responders do their jobs much faster.  We also learned about another piece of high-tech equipment one of the other houses in Charlotte Fire can use on the scene.  Watch the two web exclusive videos on this page to learn more.

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