Drones to the Rescue: A new age of public safety technology

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Are drones the public safety tool of the future? Wayne Township Fire Department certainly thinks so. For the past three years, the department has invested in, and expanded, the used of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to a point where they’re second nature on many calls.

“Once we got the aircraft and we started using them, we immediately saw a huge benefit,” said Cpt. Michael Pruitt, public information officer with Wayne Township Fire Department.

The first immediate benefit Wayne Township Fire saw was giving commanders new “eyes” on incidents without needing helicopters or putting personnel in harm’s way. That goes for fires, hazmat situations and severe weather.

In one case, Pruitt said the department was called to a tanker leak. When they arrived on scene it was unclear where the leak was coming from and what it was. They flew the department’s drone close enough to read the label on the tanker and identify the liquid, all without sending personnel close to the unknown.

When combating structure fires, Pruitt says the drones provide invaluable perspective on hot spots and potential hazards. For incident commanders charged with sending men and women into those buildings, Pruitt says it can be a game changer.

“Being able to see 360 degrees around the home when you’re the person making the decision on how we’re going to fight that fire—having that ability is priceless.”

How it Works:
Wayne Township Fire Department has trained and certified several UAV pilots to operate the drones on various calls.

They operate the aircraft from their cell phones or iPads attached to a controller.

From there, they can see high definition imaging of what’s on the ground. Or in the case of infrared photography, firefighters can attach a FLIR thermal imaging camera to search for missing persons or detect hot spots from the air.

The video can be watched live and even recorded.

Search and Rescue:
When Wayne Township Fire Department adopted the technology roughly three years ago, it was one of the first departments in the state to do so.

Initially, Pruitt said they weren’t sure when they should take drones up. The technology was still in its early stages for public safety and the department feared privacy violations. But with more working incidents, the Wayne Township Fire saw the benefits of drone usage quickly grow.

Pruitt says the more practice they get with the technology, the more effective it becomes. That’s why Wayne Township’s drones aren’t just used in the district, oftentimes they’re answering requests from other agencies throughout Central Indiana.

“It’s not uncommon for us to get a call in the middle of the night, or any time for that matter,” said Pruitt.

Like on June 20th, 2017: Indianapolis Metro Police Department requested Wayne Township’s infrared UAV to assist in the search for a missing teen with autism.

The drone flew over the dark wooded and water areas where police were searching on foot, and because it’s camera was equipped with thermal imaging capabilities, it was able to clear large areas in a shorter period of time.

Ultimately, the missing teen was found in a nearby superstore, but the drone technology still helped eliminate difficult areas to check with ground crews.

“There are much more expensive items out there that we’ve spent money on that probably don’t give us our return as much as our UAVs on a daily basis,” Pruitt added.

Ambassadors for Drone Technology:
Wayne Township Fire Department was inspired to adopt UAV technology after a firefighter conference several years ago. Since then, they’ve not only been ahead of the curve when it comes to usage, they’ve been inspiring other departments to consider adopting it as well.

“We’ve received calls from not only agencies in the United States but Canada also calling and asking questions about how we’re running our program, how we set it up,” Pruitt says federal training requirements necessitate training and certification, but the technology itself is not as expensive as one might think.

The department now has seven working drones. Some are used for training and certification, while others are taken out into the field.

At the beginning, Wayne Township Fire invested roughly $14,000 on the equipment and certification. The technology has its own internal software updates, and there are always newer and better cameras they can adopt with time.

Pruitt says other departments often decide to consider investing in drones after they request Wayne Township Fire Department’s assistance.

“We think this is something that every county should have access to,” Pruitt added.