All the Buzz: How drones are keeping communities safe

Images: WAVY-TV 10

YORK COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — First responders in York County are taking their views to new heights by deploying drones in emergency situations.

A 12-person team, made up of six deputies and six firefighters, are helping the Virginia Department of Emergency Management around the Commonwealth.

“This is the latest and greatest thing,” said Assistant Chief Christopher Sadler, with York County Fire and Life Safety. “Being able to have that perspective from the sky down is tremendous.”

Rover One is the name of the truck and trailer outfitted by York County that houses all three drones, the supporting equipment and computer monitors to record flights and monitor air traffic.

“It’s essentially dispatched no different than a firetruck or ambulance wherever the incident would be,” said Sadler.

The drone team officially formed in June 2016, when the sheriff’s office and fire department joined forces to finance the project.

Since then, all 12 team members have become certified pilots through the Federal Aviation Administration. Each of them completed a flight course and at least 16 hours of training, says Sadler.

The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office says they started with two smaller drones and recently graduated to a $10,000 drone that has about $20,000 in added features. It has two advanced cameras and six motors. It can fly as high as 400 feet and travels about 30 miles per hour.

Master Deputy Mike Russell says the drones allow first responders to get to places faster and view unfolding situations from a vantage point where they can come up with a comprehensive plan.

“Looking down, you can see the entire scope of the situation,” said Russell. “We don’t exist as a team to just go out here and fly and have fun. We exist to provide information to the men and women making decisions.”

Major Ron Montgomery, who serves as deputy sheriff and helped launch the program, says each flight is recorded. The reason is similar to the use of body-worn cameras.

“In case there’s any question about what we were doing and what the drone saw, we could play that back if it was needed for court or we had a question from a citizen as to what was going on.”

The drone is outfitted with two cameras: One that has an optical zoom and another with thermal imaging to see through smoke at fire scenes and see through the trees in search and rescue.

“You can be a quarter of a mile out with that camera on it, with that lens and get as detailed as you want to without having to be over top of them,” said Montgomery.

The larger drone has been deployed about a dozen times in assessing storm damage, protecting crews overhead tactical and hazmat situations and monitoring crowds at a rally for Rep. Scott Taylor.

“The more calls we go on, the more incidents we respond to, it just makes us stronger,” said Sadler. “It makes us better.”

There’s already talks of expanding the program by getting more first responders trained to fly and putting smaller drones in the trunks of patrol cars.

“If someone is in immediate danger, we reduce that response time dramatically,” said Montgomery.

In the future, Montgomery says a claw underneath the drone has the potential to drop medicine to a stranded person or help a distressed swimmer.

“If somebody is in the York River, maybe a capsized boat or something like that … we can literally drop a life jacket to them and then it self inflates.”

Montgomery says he is not blind to the fact that some people are skeptical of security, surveillance and government. He says investigators are not ruling out using drones in executing high-stakes search warrants, but they do not plan to use them to collect information in the process of developing probable cause.

“The drone cannot be put any place that I couldn’t be as a law enforcement officer without that search warrant,” said Montgomery.

Sadler estimates York County has spent about $80,000 to launch the program. He says the project has been funded by money seized in drug busts and grant money.

The FAA predicts commercial drone sales will rise about 450 percent by 2020, from 600,000 to 2.7 million.

Each of the seven cities tell WAVY.com they are interested and/or are studying the possibility of obtaining drones for policing and firefighting. The City of Virginia Beach says they have already started forming a drone program of their own.