Drones and First Responders – Hernando Sun

Hernando County first responders use modern technology in their work

Few people know that drones have been around since the early 1900s. Most people associate them with realistic action movies or “way out there” sci-fi sagas, such as “Captain Phillips,” ” Eye in the Sky”, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Chappie”. Once fiction, drones are now used for recreational, commercial and military purposes. The use most closely related to the safety of the general public is that of our first responders.

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and Hernando County Fire and Emergency Services (HCFES) use drones in many of their operations. The HCSO has had a drone unit since November 2019. The HCFES has had its operational unit since October last year. These two agencies have worked together on several operations and plan to do joint training this summer.

Corporal Mike Woodward, a 10-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, was the one who pitched the idea for a drone unit to Sheriff Nienhuis. Currently, they have seven deputies who are certified drone pilots. They must take the FAA Part 107 course and then pass a test to be certified. The test is almost equivalent to a basic knowledge test for an airplane pilot. Members of the drone unit all have other duties. Some are traffic deputies, some are detectives, while some are patrol deputies, and so on.
Drones are useful in many situations. For example, they have been used to locate missing persons, fugitive suspects, and to help firefighters and foresters locate bushfires, as well as determine the size and direction of the fire.

“Drones bridge the gap between when a call comes in and when the aviation unit can arrive on scene. They are kept in agency vehicles so they are readily available,” he said. note Cpl Woodward.
Sometimes a helicopter isn’t even necessary, which saves the agency quite a bit of money. While a helicopter burns gallons of fuel in a short time, the only cost with drones is charging or replacing batteries when needed, and sometimes propellers. In most cases, drones can often get to the scene faster than a helicopter.

There are 13 drones in service today. Four are smaller drones that can be used inside a structure or confined area. Five of the drones have spotlights, speakers and infrared capabilities, allowing them to fly at night.

During the day, one deputy can work alone on a drone operation, but at night, two deputies are needed. One is the pilot and the other a visual observer, who keeps an eye on the drone at all times. All agency assistants are trained as visual observers. Pilots must obey all FAA rules and are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet. All drones must also be kept in visual line of sight.

Sometimes two or more drones will be used in an operation. This happens when there is a large area to cover. One drone will fly at one height and the other will fly at a different height. Additionally, having multiple drones working together allows one to be in the air while the drone’s battery is charging. Typically, a charge will last 30-40 minutes.

The drone transmits an image of what it sees to a monitor in the vehicle. However, due to privacy concerns per agency policy, the Sheriff’s Office does not take photos or record video unless included in a search warrant. The drone can also zoom in to get a clearer image.

Nick Brandt is the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Program Coordinator for Fire and Emergency Services. He has been with HCFES since 2009 and with the unit since its inception. Brandt wrote the grant to get the funds for the drone unit, then wrote another grant for operator training.
Like the sheriff’s office, HCFES drone operators have other duties in addition to those involved in the unit. Some are paramedics; others, like Brandt, are driver-engineers and some are firefighters. Currently, there are fourteen certified pilots.

In the past nine months alone, the drone unit has assisted in locating and tracking bushfires and working with the sheriff’s office at the scene of a traffic accident. In this case, it was an overnight crash and while paramedics were assisting the victims, deputies used their drone to search for people who might have been ejected from the vehicle. “It was a quick way to search a wide area,” Brandt said.

The drone unit was also deployed to Bay County in the Florida panhandle to help those officials gather information about a bushfire they were dealing with. While there, they also helped solve a plane crash.

Another case involved an individual who fell from a horse while riding in the Croom Forest area and was injured. He was able to call 911 and give the dispatcher his approximate location. The drone operator located the pilot and helped guide paramedics to the location. Who knows what might have happened to that person if the drone hadn’t located them.

Another aspect of drones is that they have two-dimensional mapping capabilities. This means that they are able to take multiple photos overlapping an area and, using a computer program, drone personnel can stitch these images together to make one large image.

“This is particularly useful in times of natural disaster, such as hurricanes, severe thunderstorms that can produce tornadoes or forest fires. We are able to fly over damage trajectories and collect that data for the map which we can then send to the State Emergency Management Team as well as FEMA. This allows them to see the damage minutes to hours after it occurs so they can declare a state of disaster without having to ask state or federal authorities to put boots on the ground. It’s incredibly efficient and cost-effective,” remarks Brandt.

There are endless situations in which first responders can and do use drones. However, the future is not entirely rosy. From January 2023, many of these agencies will not be allowed to use the drones they currently use. In 2021, the Florida Legislature passed a bill (Senate Bill 44, Statute 934.50, Subsection 7) stipulating that all state agencies must use drones purchased from four select US companies. Currently, most agencies use drones made in China. The reason cited for passing the bill was security issues.

Approved vendors for purchasing drones include Skydio, Parrot, Altavian, Teal Drones, and Vantage Robotics. Under the new law, an approved manufacturer must provide appropriate safeguards to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data collected, transmitted or stored by a drone.
A provision that would expand company choice to include manufacturers used by the Department of Defense was included in another bill introduced in the Legislature this year (Senate Bill 2512), but the bill was vetoed by the Governor. of law.

According to a source with Hernando County Fire and Emergency Services, this law will be detrimental to first responders and other agencies who must comply with these rules because Chinese-made drones are more technologically advanced and cheaper than those produced by American companies.

“It will be more difficult to accomplish the things that we can do now and it will cost more. They [the U.S. companies] work trying to catch up [with Chinese technology]but in the meantime, it will be harder for us to keep doing what we are doing,” says Brandt.
Another downside is that these agencies will not be compensated for the drones they have to return to donors. And the state has not provided funding mechanisms to purchase the new drones.

“We strive to get approved manufacturers to meet our needs through technology and affordability with the approved equipment that the law has required us to purchase,” continues Brandt. “We hope to find private funding sources to purchase these other drones to keep our program running. It is a valuable tool. It’s cost-effective, safe and life-saving.

In the meantime, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office and Hernando County Fire and Emergency Departments will continue to use drones in a myriad of situations. Many hope that the law will be changed in some way or that American companies will be incentivized to improve their drone technology and reduce costs.

As with every challenge, a positive “can do” attitude is essential.
“We’re going to find ways to make it work because it’s a technology that’s not going to go away. We will do our best. We want our program to continue to operate within the boundaries of the new law,” concludes Brandt.

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