HENDERSON, Ky. — As technology advances so do some techniques used by emergency responders.
The Henderson County Emergency Management Agency recently purchased a piece of equipment officials said should save time in some critical situations — a drone.
“There’s a trend in emergency management,” said EMA Director Kenny Garrett. “There’s a golden hour in public safety that we know is so important. The drone will help us …
“Take search and rescue, which is a primary goal in emergency management,” Garrett said. “We have a Henderson City County Rescue Squad and other means of finding people. The (law enforcement agencies) are usually the first on the scene and can canvass the area really fast. Other agencies with certain types of vehicles can hit the road in a search effort. We have ground searchers, and we can deploy all of that over a period of time.
“But if I know where a person was last seen — say they have Alzheimer’s and they are a wanderer — I can put the drone up in the air a lot faster than I can deploy people. I’m still going to deploy people, but this is a tool that will help us do it faster,” he said.
The drone — purchased at the end of the 2019-2020 fiscal year — is a DJI Mavic II Enterprise Dual.
“It has a dual camera; it takes pictures and video, but it also has a thermal capability,” Garrett said. “For example, if I turn it to thermal, it will show hot spots at a fire scene as darker colors.
“It just depends how I want to set it up. I can have the color appear as red or blue just whatever I want it to be. And it alerts me (to certain temperatures detected) on the computer.”
“I can set a temperature to be detected at 75 degrees,” Garrett said. “So if I’m looking for someone at night in the woods, and if he/she is alive, his/her temperature could be at least 80 degrees. We can turn that temperature down even more in case we suspect there’s hypothermia. If I’m anywhere in the vicinity of the person (with a temperature in this range) the alarm will alert me and tell me where to look.
There are certain instances considered “authorized missions” for the EMA drone.
Those include fire and accident scene assessments, to monitor flooding, scoping out tornado damage, search and rescue operations and incidents where authorities need to view structural damage — such as when the Alles Brother’s Showroom building, at First and North Elm streets, collapsed last August.
Having a drone is one thing. Being legally allowed to operate it is another.
Garrett said in order to fly the drone on behalf of a government agency he had to pass a test that would earn him a pilot’s certification.
“Anyone that flies commercially or for government uses has to have a FAA certification or basically a pilot’s license,” he said. “With a pilot’s license, you are rated for various types of aircraft. I’m licensed for a drone. I went through similar learning procedures as other pilots … the tests are different but a lot of the information is the same that pilots have to know such as air space, safety, quick thinking and all the things you have to consider.
“You are flying a drone over people’s heads,” Garrett said. “What happens if it falls out of the sky and hits somebody? It’s a liability. So you have to learn all the things you need to know about operating the drone itself, but also how to deal with ‘what if’ situations and weather and all kinds of things.”
Garrett said he had to go to an FAA certified testing center to take the test.
“I had to go to Tennessee to take the test. It’s $150 for the test. If you fail, you pay another $150 in two weeks to take the test. It’s not a hard test, but like with anything, you have to study for it.”
A good tool
Drones aren’t the answer to all assessments/reactions of emergency situations, he said.
“Drones aren’t the end all, beat all solution,” he said. For instance, they might not be much use in an ice/snowstorm.
“These batteries need heat to hold power, and they are self-heating batteries. The colder it is, the harder it is to keep them warm. Drones can freeze up, and you have to be careful when you get to temperatures below 40 degrees.”
While drones aren’t ideal for every situation, Garrett said, “This is just another tool which gives us (emergency services personnel) the ability to do things quicker.”
Henderson Fire Chief Scott Foreman agreed, saying drones are very beneficial but do not replace some traditional approaches to working emergency scenes. While the HFD doesn’t have its own drone, the department has access to one which is used frequently.
“For us, the benefit is that a drone gives us the ability to see something and put eyes on something in a place where we don’t have to put a firefighter,” he said. “It’s all about risk/benefit. We can use it to look at a chemical name, a placard (to know the hazards firefighters are facing at scenes) … drones are used a lot in wildfires because you can see which way the fire is moving.
“We use them on structure fires because you can see where the damage is and the weaknesses are. Drones that have thermal imaging capabilities help us tremendously because you can see stuff you otherwise can’t see,” Foreman said.
“In the past, we’d put a firefighter up on an ariel truck to get an eye (on things), but now we can put a drone up and 20 people can see a scene at the same time versus that one set of eyes,” he said.
“Drones are just a tool,” but not the only tool, he said. “At the riverfront (during search and rescue operations), we will use a drone, but we are still putting boats in the water. Years and years ago, we’d ask news helicopters or LifeFlight to fly over the water to give us a view, but now we can get drones in the area quicker than we can a helicopter to fly over the river. We can get a better observation of where someone is or where a boat is floating because drones can cover the ground so quick.”
“Drones definitely don’t replace (all) the old ways of doing things,” Foreman said. “But instead of putting a guy in a suit in a risk zone, we can now fly a drone into it to get the intel needed.”
Foreman said it’s important to remember the chemicals being hauled are different than in years past. When those semis or similar transport vehicles are involved in accidents, emergency responders need to know as much as possible about the chemicals at the scene.
“The cargo, the quantity is different. Back in the day, furniture wasn’t basically made of fuel, it was made of wood,” he said. “So now there’s an increase of plastics and petroleum use” and products firefighters and emergency responders need to be aware.
“The EMA has a drone, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office has one, one of our firefighters has one … drones are a great resource for us. In the past, you’d have to have commanders and decision-makers up in helicopters.
“We don’t have to do that anymore,” Foreman said. “We can organize a response from the ground. We also can allow more people to view the overall situation” which allows for a better tactical approach.