A local firefighter and Public Safety diver has used his formal training to start a business that recovers small items from Lake Lanier on a donations-only basis, despite diving hazards lurking below the water’s surface.
“This is more of a hobby than anything,” Alex Birkett, the founder of Wet Recovery Solutions said. “Typically my diving is like, two minutes. I drop down, find [the lost item], come back up, and help somebody who's got a big ol' smile on their face. I hate that they're having a bad day already, you know, they dropped their valuables in the water.”
Wet Recovery Solutions, an item recovery diving business composed of off-duty firefighters and Public Safety divers, asks its customers to pay what they feel their item is worth to recover. That money is then put toward gas, equipment and anything leftover is used to promote water safety through a life vest initiative, Birkett said.
“We want to promote safety on this lake,” he said. “There's a lot of drownings per year on this lake and we want to try, as a business on the lake, to do our best to educate people and spread the word about boating safety and swimming safety in general.”
Nearly 13 million people visit Lake Lanier a year, according to Hall County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team Commander Lieutenant Chris Tempel. More than 700 drownings have been reported since the lake was built in the 1950s and 24 of those victims were never recovered, he said.
Lieutenant Tempel has been a diver on Lake Lanier for 23 years. Dangers beneath the lake’s surface make it incredibly difficult to search and recover items from the lake 100 percent of the time, he said.
“It’s like diving in a giant cold cup of coffee. On a good day, you might get six to eight foot of visibility,” Tempel said. “The problem is that the work that we do is recovery and we’re searching for items at the bottom. As soon as you touch the bottom, it silts up and you can’t see.”
Visibility is not the only area of concern for divers in the lake. The topography, man made structures below the surface that were not removed before the lake was flooded and standing timber also cause extreme hazards, Tempel said.
“You’ve got anchor lines, fishing string, and anything else that’s washed down the rivers throughout the years and it’s all suspended in the timber. You have the structural integrity of the trees. Are they going to fall over when you touch them or are the limbs going to fall off and pull you down,” he said.
Boat docks are another area where divers must be cautious because there are electrical and entanglement dangers beneath the surface. Electricity running from docks could cause death by electrocution; therefore, cutting dockside power prior to a recovery dive is standard procedure, Tempel said.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has access to tools that do not require the agency to deploy divers right away, according to Tempel. The agency uses a remotely operated underwater vehicle, or an ROV, which works much like a drone and is equipped with an underwater camera to help predetermine diving conditions and water visibility.
“That technology was not in place 20 years ago. Now that we have these tools, it’s really going to make things safer and easier for the divers, particularly when you know the conditions you’re going in,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office also works alongside the Department of Natural Resources and utilizes Sector Scan Sonar to locate missing items and drowning victims.
“On sonar and you can actually make out arms, legs, you can tell that it’s a person down there,” Tempel said. “And fish finders are getting so good, I’ve seen some images off a high-end fish finder where you could almost read ‘Uniroyal’ on the side of a tire.”
While technology has proven to be a benefit in search and rescue efforts, it is not foolproof.
The Atlanta man who drowned outside Holiday Marina last summer was located nine days after he jumped into the lake to retrieve a hat and never resurfaced. Sector Scan Sonar was used in an attempt to locate that victim; however, conditions of the lake were trying and he could not be found.
Birkett was among the men who physically recovered the drowning victim. The victim was located by touch, rather than by technology, like most items recovered from the lake, he said.
“We were searching with our hands,” Birkett said. “If it’s metal, we’ll use a metal detector, but the majority [of the time] we use our hands and feel for everything.”
Since Birkett’s dive team does not have the same resources as local agencies, they must dive into the lake blindly; however, the dive team practices many safety precautions to help combat preventable accidents.
Emily Morrison, Birkett’s girlfriend, is a firefighter and paramedic for Dawson County. She is involved in the business and accompanies Birkett during his dives and monitors from the surface level. The couple uses rope signals to communicate with one another while Brickett is underwater, she said.
“Being on the surface watching him go in, it's scary,” Morrison said. “But when I have that rope, when he's holding on to that rope, we can signal to each other. So I know he's okay,” she said.
The Hall County Sheriff's Office reminds people to always practice safe boating and swimming by wearing a PFD (Personal Flotation Device), not partaking in drug and alcohol use while on the water and keeping an eye on your surroundings at all times.