City police and firefighters are launching a joint drone program.
Fire Chief Sonny Pinkstaff secured an Indiana Department of Homeland Security grant for $32,000, enough to purchase two high-performance drones and train as many as a dozen firefighters on how to properly use them.
Police Chief Dusty Luking, too, is eager to train at least one of his officers as well.
“There are really just a multitude of ways we can use these drones,” Pinkstaff said. “But it's a long process — getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration — so I would expect it to be six months to a year before we really get these off the ground, so to speak.”
Using drones in both police work and firefighting, however, isn't anything new. They've become commonplace among public safety officials for a variety of reasons.
Firefighters in Terre Haute, Pinkstaff said, already have an active drone program, so he'll look to them for guidance as he begins the often tedious process of implementing their use here.
But the result, he said, will be a tool that can keep public safety officials and residents alike safer.
“Take the McDonald's fire (on Hart Street) a few weeks ago,” Pinkstaff said. “We could have used a drone to look at that building from a whole different perspective, even helping us to target where the fire was, where it's moving. Is the roof getting ready to give way?
“And that way, we don't put our guys inside,” he said. “Or if it is, we have time to get them out, too.”
Firefighters can also engage a drone when getting to a scene to find out — if it's not already obvious — where fire is in a building, thereby creating a more controlled and safer environment. With infrared technology, the drone can also find fire in walls or even identify people who might be trapped inside.
Pinkstaff said the drones, too, can be used after the fire to aid in the investigation. A vantage point from above, he said, can often pinpoint more easily where a fire started or even how it started in the first place.
The fire department also plans to use the drones in its Project Lifesaver program, wherein they help to deploy resources to find children and adults with disabilities who have gone missing.
Luking, too, said his officers can use the drones to aid in accident reconstruction, among other things.
“If you have an accident, you can use a drone to get up above that intersection and take photos, say 25 feet, 50 feet, even 100 feet up,” Luking said. “From that viewpoint, you can get a good idea of what happened looking at how those cars came to rest where they did.”
And if a drone can be deployed quickly enough, Luking added, they have been known to aid police departments in fugitive apprehension.
“Say we've got somebody who runs off into a woods or a field, that drone will pick up on their heat signature,” Luking said. “There have been several successful cases around Indiana and the U.S. where, using a drone, police have been able to locate someone more quickly.
“It's really a great tool for a lot of things.”
With the money now in hand, Pinkstaff said he has filed all the appropriate paperwork with the FAA to actually purchase the two drones.
But the FAA also sets strict guidelines on exactly how, where and by whom these types of drones can be operated. Essentially, they have to secure a type of pilot's license.
“They're a great tool but you have to do so safely,” Luking said. “Some of these can go upwards of 30, even 40 miles per hour and at incredible heights.
“You have to share the air space with planes and helicopters, and there are always obstructions you have to consider, things like trees or utility lines.”
“There is a tremendous amount of training that must be done before we start using these in the field,” Pinkstaff said. “The training is extensive, from what I've look at, but it should be when you're flying something like that.
“The last thing we want to do is send a $20,000 piece of equipment up into the air and have it come back down in pieces.”