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Drone technology helping search and rescue efforts in Johnson County

BARGERSVILLE, Ind. -- Cutting edge drone technology is helping a Johnson County fire department to conduct search and rescue operations around the county and in surrounding communities.

The Bargersville Fire Department recently used a $10,000 grant from the Johnson County Community Foundation to purchase a drone and several different cameras that can attach to it. One camera records 4K high definition video. But the bulk of the grant money was used to purchase at $6,500 thermal imaging camera. The heat-sensing camera is already proving extremely useful in doing what the department specializes in: search and rescue.

“Even if it’s pitch black outside, we’d be able to see somebody standing in a field,” said Bargersville Fire Department Division Chief, Eric Funkhouser. “So the heat that comes off their body shows up on the camera.”

After purchasing the drone in January, Funkhouser says he spent a couple months training and being certified to fly the drone. In the last couple months, the drone has been used about 10 times in Johnson County and other communities. Funkhouser says the thermal camera flying overhead serves as a huge time saver covering large search areas. This allows search teams on the ground to be more efficient, he said.

Funkhouser says the drone is already proving useful in a variety of different types of cases. It has been deployed to help search for a runaway child in a neighborhood, and an adult who was lost in a wooded area. The Bargersville Fire Department was also called out to assist in Bloomington last week as officials were searching for a man who had been kidnapped and left tied to a tree for 24 hours.

Funkhouser also envisions the drone being used to help police departments track suspects who are on the run. It could also be used to help find a missing person in a Silver Alert or Amber Alert situation.

Nearby fire departments are also making use of technology to help save lives. The Greenwood Fire Department recently used a $75,000 grant to purchase a device that tests unknown substances in order to determine what they are. The White River Township Fire Department also makes use of a thermal imaging camera.

"These advanced technologies have a tremendous positive impact on those we serve,” said White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell. “In our job, minutes can make the difference between a rescue and a tragic outcome. Technology helps give us those precious minutes.”

Funkhouser believes a thermal camera in the sky could be a vital resource at a fire scene.

“To be able to see where the hot spots are,” Funkhouser said. “To be able to see where the fire is spreading in a building. We’ve actually had some fire departments contact us recently wanting us to start running this on some of their working fires.”