Fla. firefighters, police receive drones

Unlike the costlier alternative of a helicopter, the drones can be deployed in seconds for a search and rescue mission

By Sarah Peters
The Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Catching the bad guys, putting out fires and finding missing kids just got a little easier for Palm Beach Gardens police and firefighters.

The police department and fire rescue each has a new, buzzing, battery-powered drone. Four people between the two departments are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the aircraft. Community donations paid for the drones, which each cost several thousand dollars.

The pricier fire rescue drone has a thermal-imaging camera that can detect, for example, a hidden source of fire in a burning house or the body heat coming from a missing adult with dementia who wandered in the woods.

Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp and Maj. Paul Rogers emphasized the drones will only be used for specific missions, not widespread surveillance.

"By no means will we use it to spy on people or anything like that," Stepp said. "Because it's new, we're going to err on the side of privacy and safety."

The department's policy mirrors strict state law controlling drone use by law enforcement, Rogers said. The drone will record any time it's on an official mission until it lands and turns off. Footage that's gathered by the drone and stored on a memory card will be kept according to the retention schedule determined by the type of incident.

The drones are relatively easy to fly. The hard part is operating them safely with other aircraft. The drones fly at 400 feet above ground level and are never to leave the sight line of their operators. The departments worked with the Trauma Hawk air medical transport program to make sure the drones don't interfere.

Safety mechanisms are built in. For instance, if the drone loses contact with the transmitter controlling it, it lands where it took off.

Unlike the costlier alternative of a helicopter, the drones can be deployed in seconds for a search and rescue mission. Those seconds can make a big difference in the search for a missing autistic child who's drawn to water, Stepp said. The drone can scan the canals, lakes and pools in a whole neighborhood in the time it takes police to knock on a few doors to ask people to check their pools.

The fire rescue drone with a thermal-imaging camera allows firefighters to see flames in hidden places before going inside a burning building, EMS Division Chief James Ippolito said.

The drones can also be used after a major disaster such as a hurricane to quickly survey the damage and deploy resources to the hardest hit areas, Ippolito said. If access to a community is blocked by downed trees or wires, emergency responders can see what's ahead with the drone.

If there was a train derailment in which hazardous materials spilled, the drone could quickly identify them, Ippolito said.

Neither drone has flown a mission yet, but emergency personnel are optimistic about the technology's capabilities.

"The possibilities for the future use of these drones — it's just amazing," Rogers said.

Copyright 2016 The Palm Beach Post

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