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Drone interrupts first responders during crash scene where medical helicopter was called

During the Flight for Life transport, with one helicopter on the ground and another approaching, first responders noticed a drone flying above them


Two of the crash victims were taken by Flight for Life helicopters to Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa and one was taken to Froedtert by a ground ambulance.

Photo/Flight For Life Transport System

By Jonathon Sadowski
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

DOVER, Wis. — It was a “chaotic” scene at the intersection of Highway J and Highway 11 on Thursday night, where a crash involving a minivan and a pickup truck left several people injured.

Rescuers not only had to deal with the challenges at the crash site, which included extricating a patient from the wreckage, but helicopters arriving and leaving the scene had to contend with a drone flying above the crash scene.

At 9:12 p.m. Thursday, Racine County Sheriff’s deputies and Kansasville and Town of Burlington fire crews and Burlington Rescue Squad units responded for a report of an injury crash involving a Ford pickup truck and a Chrysler Town & Country minivan at the intersection of Durand Avenue (Highway 11) and English Settlement Avenue (Highway J), the Sheriff’s Office and Town of Burlington Fire Chief Bill Vrchota reported.

A 50-year-old Illinois woman was driving the pickup and the minivan’s driver was a 66-year-old Racine County woman. The latter also had a passenger, a 70-year-old Racine County man, the Sheriff’s Office reported. All sustained significant injuries.

Two of the crash victims were taken by Flight for Life helicopters to Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa and one was taken to Froedtert by a ground ambulance, sheriff’s and fire officials said.

The Illinois woman had to be extricated from the truck, Vrchota said.

During the Flight for Life transport, with one helicopter on the ground and another approaching, first responders noticed something flying above them, which Vrchota said was determined to be a drone.

“At that time the final helicopter was making its approach to touch down at the landing zone,” Vrchota said.

Vrchota relayed a message about the drone flying in the area to the helicopter pilot.

“At that point everybody looked up and started pointing,” Vrchota said. “I also called dispatch to have them send a deputy over to me and then the drone — I don’t know if they (the operators) could see us pointing at it or what — took off and left.”

Sheriff’s investigators attempted to find the operator of the drone but as of Friday, it is unknown if an arrest had been made or a citation had been issued.

Vrchota said he doesn’t know how long the drone was flying above the scene.

“My main concern was getting the patients out as quickly and safely as we could and then getting them to the hospital,” Vrchota said.

Vrchota said the situation could have been made a lot worse if the drone collided with the helicopter or lost power and fell into the scene.

“Our function as EMS, fire and law enforcement is to keep everybody safe on scene,” Vrchota said. “To have our focus turned to something that could definitely endanger all the people on the ground … it took your main focus off of patient care.”

Late Friday afternoon, two brothers, 24 and 19 years old from the Town of Burlington, turned themselves into Racine County Sheriff’s deputies and said they were the pilots and owners of the drone that had flown in the area. Both were cooperating with the investigation which was ongoing as of Friday, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

‘Worth the risk?’

Tammy Chatman, public information officer for Flight for Life, which is based in Waukesha, said a big rule in aviation is “see and avoid.”

“We can’t see the drones, especially at night,” Chatman said. “We can’t avoid what we cannot see.”

At Thursday’s scene at the Burlington/Dover town line, Chatman said there were several radio frequencies that could have interfered with the drone’s function, or the drone’s signal could have interfered with the radio frequencies; the drone could have lost power and fell onto someone at the scene or it could have collided with the helicopter and could have created a much larger scene.

“You need to let people do their jobs because at the end of the shift, at the end of the call the most important thing that any of us do as first responders is go home to the people that we love,” Chatman said. “And what photo or video (from a drone) is worth that risk?”

Incidents involving drones at the scene of a crash, Chatman said, have been occurring throughout the United States and Flight for Life has experienced drones at scenes in the past.

“It doesn’t happen every day, but in some parts of the country it happens quite frequently,” Chatman said. “The drone situation (in Wisconsin) tends to be few and far between, because most of your drone operators are responsible, trained, educated unmanned aircraft pilots.

“It’s those that either choose to not be responsible, don’t know what they should be doing … but the fact is, when you put your drone in the air you are a pilot and you need to act accordingly.”

The intersection was shut down for about 5 hours Thursday night and into Friday morning as the crash was investigated, the Sheriff’s Office reported. The Wisconsin State Patrol assisted with the crash investigation and mapping.

The Kansasville Fire and Rescue Department, Town of Burlington Fire Department, Union Grove-Yorkville Fire Department and Burlington Rescue Squad sent equipment and personnel to the scene.

The state Department of Transportation and Racine County Traffic Commission have targeted the intersection of highways 11 and J as a dangerous intersection. As of May, it has been the site of 36 crashes since 2010. Two crashes in the past four years resulted in fatalities.

Last year, after a fatal crash, the DOT last year installed new signs on Highway 11 in an attempt to alert drivers to the intersection. Flags also were added to the four advance-warning signs to draw more attention to them.

Jonathon Sadowski and Pete Wicklund contributed to this report.


©2019 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.