BONNERS FERRY — Locating a missing person on the Kootenai River at night could be like finding a needle in a haystack at best, and nearly impossible in the worst of conditions, like a rainy or foggy night. This, coupled with the time sensitivity of such a rescue, where a person’s life could depend on minutes, rather than hours, prompted a significant upgrade in the equipment used by the Boundary County Sheriff’s Marine Program.
The Marine Program boat is now equipped with a state of the art thermal camera.
“The same technology that the military uses for thermal imaging,” explained Boundary County Sheriff Deputy Caleb Watts, who is a graduate of the North Idaho Marine Law Enforcement Academy in Coeur d’Alene, and acts as a liaison between the Sheriff’s Office and the Boundary County Search and Dive Rescue.
The camera reacts to heat signatures, turning the darkest nights into day, and displaying it on an easy to see screen. The camera forms an image using infrared radiation, instead of a common camera, which uses visible light to form an image. While a common camera uses 400–700 nanometre range, infrared cameras operate in wavelengths as long as 14,000 nm (14 µm).
The higher an object’s temperature, the more infrared radiation is emitted, and ambient light does not affect the image in any way. Warmer temperatures show up as white, while cooler temperatures look black, with all shades of grey in between, showing a detailed image on the screen, with even the ripples of waves distinctly represented.
“It will really aid us in being able to navigate and search the river and banks in low light or darkness,” said Boundary County Sheriff Dave Kramer. “This is a capability we did not have before, and could really make a difference in search and rescue missions.”
The boat was already equipped with a Hummingbird device that shows depth, water speed, temperature of the water, and more.
“It does well, but it doesn’t show us anything at night,” said Watts, “but the two of them together creates a well tuned machine for the eyes and for the radar.”
The new camera, purchased with grant money in October, 2017, is made by FLIR Systems, Inc. It is mounted on top of the boat, and can be rotated from inside, allowing the viewer to see around corners and view the banks of the river.
As opposed to the spotlights, which can still be used in conjunction with the camera, the camera sees through rain, fog, and any weather conditions, greatly increasing visibility and distance.
“The reason why it is so important for us to have it, is at night and for rescue,” explained Watts. “Even difficult nights, when there is fog and rain, we can still navigate down river. There is not a whole lot of obstructions that we need to run into. We can still navigate safely, just slowly.”
This opens up an important area that can now be reached during an emergency at night, that had previously proved too dangerous to even attempt. On the Kootenai River, between Bonners Ferry and the Montana border, the river becomes very difficult to navigate.
“There is a lot of different narrow passageways. If the river is not high it can be a foot of water,” said Watts. “With the camera, it gives us an ability to do that — it is still not absolute — but it gives us a way better chance of responding safely to help other boats on the water, or anyone along the bank, or anything like that, that needs rescued. It allows us to navigate at night, a lot safer and clearer.”
“If you can imagine being on a boat yourself, and being up river, you went to Twin Rivers and you are coming down and you are hanging onto a log in the middle of the river at dusk, and we couldn’t get there because it was dark and we don’t have the ability to,” said Watts, expressing the concern that they used to face.
This system changes all of that.
“I’ve never hit anything that was directly in front of us with this system, because it is like daylight in front of us,” explained Watts. “The biggest part is between here and Twin Rivers. That is the hardest stretch of the river to navigate through because of the channels. In order to respond that way at all, to even have a chance at night, this is by far the only way we would be able to do that.”
Although the system has not been required yet in a real life emergency, Watts has been testing it and perfecting his use of this new, life saving tool. He was able to navigate down the river from Copeland, at 20 knots, all the way back to the Bonners Ferry Boat Launch at night in the pitch dark.
“You can even see the birds on the water... plain as day,” said Watts.