By Michael Campbell, News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – A happy ending to a potentially dangerous situation last Thursday as a young Prince George boy was found safe after being reported missing, thanks in part to a new piece of technology now at the disposal of the county’s emergency services.
According to Prince George Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens, just after 10 a.m. last Thursday, Prince George Police requested county fire and EMS crews respond to the 6400 block of County Drive with their newly implemented small Unmanned Aerial System, more commonly referred to as a drone, to aid in the search for an 11-year-old-boy that had been missing since 6:40 a.m. that morning.
Once on scene, Fire and EMS uUAS program coordinator Captain Jason Coker and Owens met with Prince George Police Captain Eric Young and Lt. Shawn Moore to establish a unified command system and an incident action plan.
During the briefing, a family member spotted the young boy running in the woods. Within minutes, police units began their search for the boy on foot while the sUAS was deployed into the air just after 10:30 a.m.
Minutes later, Owens reported that the boy had been located and returned to his parents unharmed.
The drone’s use last week came just days after Owens spoke before the Prince George Board of Supervisors about how the newly acquired device can be used in a variety of situations, including finding missing people.
“80 percent of people missing are found within two miles of where they were reported missing,” Owens told supervisors during their meeting last week. “With this unit, we can cover a large search area faster than we could on foot.”
Along with the application in missing person searches, Owens told county leaders that this sUAS has real-world application in areas from structure fires, water rescues, natural and man-made disasters, active shooter situations, and others.
Even though the devices are seemingly simple to get into the air and have many practical uses, Owens explained that there are a number of requirements that the department must meet before their sUAS can take to the sky, such as having a pilot on hand that is authorized to fly the drone, understanding the effects of weather and airspace regulations on a flight plan, and ensuring that the drone is indeed airworthy, which is specific to each UAS unit.
Additionally, Owens told supervisors that law enforcement must meet specific guidelines when it comes to drone usage, particularly when it comes to surveillance, which requirement the acquisition of a search warrant by authorities. Individuals are also barred from shooting down an UAS by federal law and state and local authorities can intervene in the use of a drone if it is interfering within an incident, per state law.
“We anticipate that, in the near future, these UAS will be involved in even more things,” Owens predicted. “Within the next five years, it is likely that you will see an option to have these on fire apparatus, as well.”
Currently, Prince George emergency services have one drone and a trained pilot in the department that must be used when deploying the sUAS into airspace, but Owens is hopeful the county can get more units in the future through grant funding.
“The drone is currently held at the emergency operations center and it has to be in a climate-controlled environment due to the batteries the device uses and its use is very regulated,” Owens remarked to county leaders and the audience listening on, adding that it would take about 20 to 30 minutes from initial call to getting the drone in the air for the sUAV to be deployed.
When asked how this unit would factor into mutual aid with neighboring localities, Owens said that drone program would fall under mutual aid but, if the unit isn’t available to respond, they would not. He added that there is seemingly some interest in the drone program from nearby communities, like the Tri-Cities, so it is likely that Prince George will not be the only one with an unmanned drone program.
Prince George is among of a growing list of agencies and communities turning to drones for a variety of uses, including the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the City of Bedford, York County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department, the City of Richmond’s fire department, along with neighboring Henrico’s fire department.
Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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