1st responders want drones to aid in searches, saving lives

Unmanned aircraft can offer critical help from the sky

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you call 911 in the future, a fire-rescue expert said first responders may bring in a drone to help with your emergency.

Drone technology has really improved over the past few years, and can be affordable -- ranging in price from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars.

"It is absolutely the future," said Chief Sheldon Reed, the director of the Fire Academy of the South in Jacksonville.

Currently, a small number of firefighters and police across the globe are already using them to get an aerial view of dangerous fires as well as finding missing people.

For example, in South Carolina, search crews used a drone with thermal imaging to find two missing kayakers lost deep in the marsh. The bright colors you see -- the result of body heat -- help the kayakers stand out.

Rescuers in Canada used similar technology to find a man missing in the snow, and in Texas, a volunteer using a drone actually dropped a rope to people stuck in flood waters. Companies are already testing out drones that will bring life vests to distressed swimmers and first aid kids to stranded hikers.

First responders train with drones in Jacksonville

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, are relatively rare within police and fire departments, and there aren't any in daily use at agencies in our area, but that could soon change.

"Yes it is it is a very cool opportunity for us. And you know with the new technology that's out, we kind of jumped on the opportunity to come out here and see where we can fit this into our agency," Capt. Andrew O'Quinn with St. Johns County Fire Rescue told News4Jax.

O'Quinn says the possibilities are endless. It's why he and his counterparts from around Florida are getting special training in Jacksonville.

Instructors at FSCJ's Fire Academy of the South now teach classes about how to use the cutting-edge technology -- drones for first responders.

"The idea is to get the agencies to start thinking critically about how they were going to use this new technology and be prepared to start to implement," explained Reed.

News4Jax was there last month for the academy's first-ever class, where police and firefighters learned how to use the drones to their advantage -- essentially an eye in the sky.

From train crashes to hazardous gas leaks to bomb scares, there are many scenarios where sending in a drone can keep first responders out of danger, buying them time to assess situations without putting their own lives in harm's way.

"Instead of sending our guys and to get meter readings as far as hazmat is concerned, we can send the drone. And to get close up shots and meter readings and identification," explained Assistant Chief Arthur Holmes, Jr. with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

The SWAT team and bomb squad members with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office were among those participating in last month's class, and took the lead in an active shooter simulation.

Drones could be used to keep watch on a shooter or on the hostages, giving officers a better idea of what they're getting into before they bust in.

"The idea is to get the agencies to start thinking critically about how they were going to use this new technology and be prepared to start to implement," added Reed.

Drones for local first responders

While local agencies don't have a timeline as to when they may get drones to help first responders, here's what we've learned:

Several people with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department tell News4Jax that JFRD has applied for grants to purchase drones.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office says it's considering drones, too.  

"We continually evaluate advancements in technology, relative to public safety and crime. Drones are one of many technological assets we may consider for possible integration into our law enforcement strategies," said a JSO statement.

O'Quinn with St. Johns County Fire Rescue tells News4Jax rescuers there are also hoping to get drones soon.

"It's going to make our jobs a little bit easier, possibly keep some responders a little bit safer," O'Quinn said.

Besides assisting in emergency situations and helping protect first responders, drones could also be a huge cost-savings for agencies. As an example, Assistant Chief Arthur Holmes, Jr. with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue tells us it's about $2,100 an hour to respond to an incident with a helicopter. 

Survey finds drones are lifesaving

A recent survey on the use of unmanned aircraft reveals dozens of lives have been saved in the past year. The research, conducted by drone-maker DJI, found:

  • At least 59 lives have been saved by civilian drones in 18 different incidents (see detailed list in chart below)
  • 38 of those lives were saved in just the last 10 months, as drones are increasingly adopted by rescuers and civilians alike
  • Based on this experience, drones are saving almost one life a week on average
  • 20 of those lives (34 percent) were saved by civilians using their drones to assist in a rescue scenario
  • 31 lives were saved during floods, as drones spotted missing people and in some cases delivered rescue ropes and life jackets so they could be brought to safety
  • Another 19 missing people were found on land, on terrain ranging from swamps to mountains to snowbanks
  • Nine more people were rescued from non-flooded water environments, including off beaches or in boats

According to the survey, this count does not include many other reported incidents in which drones indirectly helped save lives by taking part in successful searches for missing people. 


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