CULLMAN COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) – Several volunteer fire chiefs on Smith Lake said new equipment is needed to help reduce the time it takes to recover accident victims from the water.

Earlier this year it took crews several days to locate the body of 60-year-old Frankie Cruce after he drowned.

In 2020, it took teams about six weeks to find the body of Dustin New. The lengthiest search was in 2019 when several months passed before first responders located the body of Kelsey Starling.

“You want to try to find that person as quickly as possible to give the family closure and answers and as it drags on it gets harder for everybody,” said Toby Bates, the chief for the Logan VFD.

Bates said the population on the lake has increased exponentially over the years. The added people and traffic can lead to trouble.

“There’s so many people moving here. This is a great recreational lake,” Bates continued. “More people, there’s more fires and more drownings.”

After a boater or swimmer goes missing for more than 24 hours, crews often have to call other agencies from south Alabama to use advanced sonar equipment and cameras.

“Over the last couple of incidents we’ve reached out to anybody in north Alabama and we just didn’t have the technology there available and that’s why we had to reach out to agencies in south Alabama,” said Brandon Williams, the volunteer chief at Crane Hill VFD.

Williams said the water in Smith Lake is more than 200-feet-deep in some places. There is also a vast underwater forest of trees that become obstacles for search teams.

The chiefs see a real need for the underwater gear in north Alabama that can be shared between agencies.

“They’re able to scan underneath the water closer to the bottom which gives you a better picture of the bottom. There’s places out here that are 250 foot deep. Our sonars can’t sonar that deep. There’s 100 foot tall trees on the bottom of some of these places and you just can’t see through them,” said Bates.

Williams said the department’s money helps to fund what is needed for fire and medic calls, but wants to see more resources for the water.

“We’re trying to catch up to the population and the traffic of Smith Lake. We’ve got adequate equipment and personnel that responds to land based incidents. Smith Lake is a different story, it is a different animal,” said Williams.

While some of the first responders have equipment with sonar, the range is limited. Advanced equipment can cost around $100,000 but is not affordable with the limited budget and resources for volunteer departments.

“If it weren’t for them guys coming up here and their tow fishes and underwater sonar, we probably would have never found these people,” said Bates.

Bates said they have tried to find ways to obtain grants for the equipment but have not had any luck.

They’re now turning to the many visitors and residents to try to raise the funds.

“We have a lot of outside people come in and recreation on smith lake and they don’t contribute anything so it would just be nice to have some extra funding from some other sources other than just our residents paying dues and taxes,” said Trimble Chief Adam Taylor.

The departments are accepting donations for water safety gear.

“If there was 5,000 houses here and every household donated $10, that’s $50,000 that would be almost enough to buy one piece of equipment so it is not a huge, if every house here on the lake donated $20 that would give us just enough to buy everything we needed,” said Bates.

If you’re interested in learning more about donations, you can email Crane Hill VFD Chief Williams at bwilliams9462@yahoo.com.