Law enforcement, first-responder agencies learn about drones

Published Aug 8, 2018 at 4:00pm

WHITESTOWN — Nearly 100 law enforcement and first-responder agencies came together on Tuesday to learn about the many potential uses of drones at the state Preparedness Training Center.

The state police, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the state Division of Homeland Security (DHS) held several live demonstrations at the center’s various staging areas. All three agencies have their own drone squads.

“People are seeing the utility of drones. There’s real life-and-death-type situations where drones can come in very, very handy,” said Terry Hastings, senior policy adviser at the state DHS. “This venue is amazing for all these kinds of real world scenarios.”

The Rome Police Department also has their own drone unit, but they were not involved in the training day.

The drone demonstrations on Tuesday included a search and rescue operation at the center’s makeshift rubble pile. Hastings said drones are able to get into the air faster than a helicopter, and are much cheaper to operate. A drone in the air can then provide situational awareness, can figure out the impact zone of a disaster and spot potential victims.

“Within a short amount of time, you can really understand a situation better, make more informed decisions from a response standpoint, and that’s what it’s all about,” Hastings stated.

Forest rangers with the state DEC showed off their drone’s capabilities in the center’s new Swift Water Rescue training zone. The rangers put a state fire official into the middle of the rapids and used their drone to carry both a life vest and a rescue rope out to the struggling swimmer.

The DEC drones can carry between 2 to 5 pounds of weight, depending on the size and strength of the drone. They are able to detach their payload via remote control.

“Any time I don’t have to put myself at risk, it’s just a lovely thing,” said Forest Ranger Bruce Lomnitzer, the self-styled “Drone Ranger,” who is trained and certified to fly for the DEC.

“If that thing crashes, it’s going to be $2,000 we’re out, instead of a life. You can’t replace the person, but you can replace the drone easily enough.”

Without the drone to deliver the life vest or the safety equipment, officials said it would be up to the first-responders themselves to possibly go into the dangerous water to rescue the struggling swimmer. Lomnitzer said unmanned aerial drones make his job safer.

“It’s really a game changer,” he noted. “We’re discovering new uses all the time.”