We have discussed in great detail why public safety agencies should develop a UAS program. It is clear that successful programs save money and resources for the agency while reducing risks for first responders. You probably are aware of this by the plethora of justification studies and hypothetical situations that exist.
The core mission of public safety is the protection of life and property. So, any innovation that supports this mission should ideally be accepted. But, in the game of facts and figures, it is easy to lose sight of this when considering new technology.
When used properly, UAS platforms take on a direct role in saving lives, often responding faster than rescuers on the ground. Their growing effectiveness has garnered the attention of media and made them headline stories around the world. Let’s take a look at some of these stories to see how drones save lives.
The Missing Hiker
Backcountry search and rescue is an arduous process. The size of the search area, combined with the dangers of the environment, makes these situations incredibly difficult. Add limited visibility to the mix and these missions become extreme. Search and rescue operators walk a fine line between responding quickly and working within the parameters of safe operations.
These are the kind of challenges the Weber County Sheriff’s Office SAR team in Ogden, Utah, faces. On April 3, 2020, Barbara Garrett and her partner, David Burgin, found themselves stranded on a trail in the Wasatch Mountains. They quickly started to worry and a call to 911 did not do much to alleviate their anxiety. The dispatcher couldn’t locate their position from the cell phone or promise a rapid rescue.
The volunteer SAR team deployed along with their drone pilot, Kyle Nordfors, to the trailhead. By this time, night had fallen. Launching the drone, Nordfors began to fly along the trail, towards the last know position of the missing hikers. On the screen, a flashing light appeared in the distance. When Nordfors flew closer to investigate, he found Garrett and Burgin, illuminating their position with drone lights. (Photo Credit: Will Saunders)
From the launch to contact, the search lasted four minutes. Four minutes.
Difficult terrain and nighttime conditions would have made a search by foot a long process. And after considering the scale of the search area, it becomes very clear that the chances of finding the missing hikers were very low. The importance of these factors however, diminished significantly because of the team’s UAS platform.
You can read about more about this incident in the original article by Outside.
The Stranded Swimmers
On May 31st, 2018, a mother and her daughter found themselves stranded below the Lake Whitney dam in Hill County, Texas. According to this KWTX10 report, rising water levels trapped the pair, who didn’t know how to swim, out in the middle of the Brazos River. Before a rescue boat launched, a drone flown by Hill County Emergency Management carried life jackets and delivered them to the two individuals. Kept afloat by the life vests, they were rescued by a West Shore Police Department airboat.
The pilot later noticed on his screen two kayakers stranded downriver. These individuals were also assisted to safety.
Response time is, in many cases, a matter of life or death for victims. Despite having water rescue resources (e.g. an airboat), first responders couldn’t deploy it in time.
Unlike boats, drones are capable of launching rapidly. This allows responders to assess the situation more accurately or, as seen in this case, drop life jackets. Who knows how much more critical the situation would’ve become without an initial UAS response.
Drones as Crimefighters
Drones don’t just save lives by dropping life jackets. They are also on the lookout for criminals. A Wired article describes how police in Ensenada, Mexico use a DJI Inspire 1 aircraft to respond to 911 calls. As a result, the police force claims 500 arrests and a 30 percent drop in home invasions over the span of four months.
A small team flies the aircraft from a command post, using Cape software, a segment of Motorola Solutions, to automate takeoffs and landings. The software also enables live streaming, meaning officers on the ground can receive a feed directly from the drone.
The reality is that a drone typically arrives on the scene far quicker than ground units. Intel from the aircraft prepares responding officers so they can anticipate an escape and apprehend them. And while there isn’t a physical presence, the appearance of a drone is, in some cases, enough to deter criminals. Thieves account for police response time in their plans to break in. They have an approximation of how long they have to rob a house before police arrive. According to Cape CEO, Chris Rittler, drones “dramatically decrease that time window.”
The constant aerial presence of UAS platforms enables quicker apprehension, better evidence collection, and deterrence of criminal behavior. Fortunately, Ensenada is not the only city implementing a drone response program. Chula Vista PD (CA) and Brookhaven PD (GA) have also started Drone as First Responders (DFR) programs. Both departments are already seeing a decrease in response times and more efficient operations.
If you’re interested in developing a Law Enforcement UAS program, be sure to check out the blog articles we have written on the topic. We cover procedures, regulations, and equipment required for these initiatives.
Drones aren’t designed to replace human first responders. Rather, they are force multipliers, valuable tools in the arsenal of fire and law enforcement departments.
Are there limitations to drones? Of course. But when these platforms are used properly, their potential in public safety operations is enormous, seen in these cases.