First responders coming to rely on drones
As a founding member of the Alzheimer’s and Autism Outreach Group, he knows all too well the angst family members go through when a loved one wanders off.
“We will be the first state in the nation to complete this goal, to have search and rescue drone coverage of an entire state,” he said. “These drones have thermal imaging cameras. Often times when you search for someone who is lost, you have to interrupt that search at night.
“These drones have military-grade cameras, the same type of cameras being used in Iraq today. So searches can continue at night and we will have a much better chance of finding people due to the capabilities of the drones.”
AOG was founded by Oscar, Tim and Frank Calloway of Selma. Oscar and Tim Calloway’s mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s. The mission of AOG is to provide support and assistance to families and caregivers of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Autism.
And these are not the drones you get from a big box store. The Inspire One model made by DJI, the model AOG is providing, is a hot rod. A complete setup with drone, training, camera and remote runs about $35,000. The AOG wants to raise enough money to place drones throughout the state. They delivered a drone recently to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office is next on the list.
Use of drones is growing with first responder agencies. The Selma Police Department has four drones, and the aircraft were used at commemoration events that were part of the recent 51st anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. The Prattville police and fire departments have had drones in the inventory for about a year.
“We are working drones into our (Standard Operating Procedures) for just about everything we do,” said Assistant Fire Chief Michael Whaley. “Drones give us the capability of getting information without placing firefighters at risk. We can use them in investigations of suspicious fires. If we are on a fire scene we can use a drone to check areas like roofs without putting personnel on that structure.”
One example where a drone would come in handy is a hazardous materials call, he said. A drone’s camera can send back information about just what material is involved. That would mean a firefighter doesn’t have to get into protective gear and approach the scene, he said.
This past spring the Autauga County Emergency Management Agency deployed its drone over downtown Prattville to search for an elderly man who had wandered off. The drone searched a swampy area along Autauga Creek.
“We were able to clear that area in a space of less than 5 minutes with the drone,” said Ernie Baggett, EMA director. “It would have taken several hours for people on the ground to conduct a grid search in a very difficult, and hazardous, environment.”
The drone has even been used as an airborne beacon, using its lights to lead people out of the woods, literally.
“We had some people who got lost and turned around in a very heavily wooded area,” Baggett said. “They could hear the searchers, but they couldn’t make out where they were. We put the drone up and they followed the lights out.”
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has plans in place for when it receives its drone, said Capt. Gayle Atchison, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman. The Montgomery police and fire departments don’t have drones.
“Drones are a technology that is quickly developing,” Atchison said. “Having a drone gives us a wide range of opportunities. When it’s not being used for search and rescue we can use it in situations where we have armed suspects. We can use the drone to gather information we don’t have to place deputies at risk.”
That’s the key, safety, said Elmore County Sheriff Bill Franklin.
“With the drone we have the ability to gather intelligence if we have a dangerous call,” he said. “If there is an armed suspect in the woods, send the drone in. We get real time information and that allows us to make determinations about what we need to do. The drone is valuable because it allows us to do a big part of our jobs without placing our officers in danger.”
Laws allow drones to be flown over private property, part of the “Open Air” rule, said District Attorney Randall Houston.
“Law enforcement has used planes and helicopters for years, a drone would fall under the same precedents,” Houston said. “If you use an aircraft to spot contraband or illegal activity on someone’s property, you can use that information.
“You don’t need a search warrant to fly over private property. Of course you have to use common sense. If you are 100 feet or more above the ground, you are safe. If you want to fly the drone at eave level and use the camera to look inside a house or building, then yeah, I’d advise you to get a search warrant for that.”