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The Science Of Drowning? California College Students Use Floating Dummies To Help Rescue Teams

Jason Halley / CSU, Chico

Chico State researchers watch a floating dummy in the Sacramento River. They're tracking how far and fast floating bodies travel in the hopes of helping water rescue teams narrow their search windows."

Jason Halley / CSU, Chico

Researchers at Chico State are developing a new tool that could help river rescue teams narrow their geographic search area for drowning victims.

A team of anthropology students are using mannequins equipped with radiofrequency trackers to test how far and how fast a body floats down the river. When they complete their tests, they’ll create an equation that could give searchers a better idea of how far bodies generally travel in the water.

“The idea is that it would be a web-based app,” said Eric Bartelink, a professor of anthropology at Chico State. “You’d be able to put in a location and a date and even a time where a person went into the river, and it would help you predict a search area, using the actual flow rate data from the time the person was in the river.”

Jason Halley / CSU, Chico A CSU, Chico researcher pulls a mannequin out of the water during the drowning study. Jason Halley / CSU, Chico

The equation will depend on how fast the water is flowing. The Chico State team expects their research will apply to drownings on the Sacramento River between Chico and Verona.

There are other factors that affect the distance a body can travel, including the rate of decomposition. The research team uses dummies that are roughly 80 pounds and made to be lifelike. They release air from a chest cavity, which lets the body sink to a 45-degree angle, the way a corpse would.

Over the next two and a half years, the team will use a grant from the National Institute of Justice to create the app — they’re calling it Sac River Search.

This could be a game-changer in Northern California, where the cold, fast river waters claim dozens of swimmers and paddlers each summer.

Zach Berg with Sutter County Boat Patrol said when they hear about a drowning, it’s hard to know how far down the river they should search. This tool might also help officials who discover corpses in the river determine where the body may have come from.

“We kind of just go off our past experiences with other incidents that have happened, and this is some actual science behind it,” Berg said. “So, it helps us out quite a bit to have more than just an educated guess on where to look.”

Jason Halley / CSU, Chico Mannequins lie on the ground along the water during CSU, Chico's drowning study. Jason Halley / CSU, Chico

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