SOUTH KOREA - The Navy on Wednesday launched new search and rescue squads at all three of its bases to reinforce its emergency response capabilities in the wake of the deadly sinking of the Sewol ferry last year.
Led by a captain, each team consists of 15 to 17 deep-sea divers and will operate a 15-seater speed boat, mobile decompression chamber, surface-supported diving system, side scan sonar, scuba equipment and other diving and search gear.
The fleets, stationed along the eastern, western and southern shores, had previously run a group of eight to 10 divers and minimal equipment. The new crews will take over some functions assigned to the Special Salvage & Rescue Unit in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang Province, the Navy said.
Their creation came as part of Seoul's efforts to beef up the military's search and rescue capacity and help minimise the loss of lives in any future maritime catastrophes.
More than 300 South Koreans were killed or went missing in the Sewol tragedy in April 2014, and blundered initial responses such as by the now-disassembled Coast Guard were chiefly blamed for the staggering death toll.
"The rescue squads were set up as a follow-up measure to the Sewol sinking and are primarily tasked with a swift initial response and rescue operation in case of a maritime disaster in their jurisdictions," the Navy said in a statement.
"The existing diving teams only had scuba devices and thus were only capable of relatively simple sea and aerospace rescue operations."
With the new tools, the divers are able to dive down 58 meters deep, stay longer under the sea and communicate with other forces on the water, the Navy said. They could not go beyond 30 meters in the past.
Since the debacle, the Navy has mapped out a comprehensive plan to develop its rescue capabilities, deploying a CH-47 chopper over the Jinhae area and providing advanced diving training to the SSU and UDT/SEALs.
It also plans to adopt nine-seater portable inflatable lifeboats to be loaded in all battleships and helicopters, and rubber rafts for speed vessels.