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How Charity Is Driving Public Safety Drone Programs

Eager for a chance to prove their value, many public safety agencies are starting with donations and grants to implement new drone programs. The gifts are proving useful to inspire additional funding for devices.

While Kale Geiswite spends his days teaching criminal justice to high schoolers, most of his time off is dedicated to the real world of public safety — fighting fires and aiding search and rescue missions.

He’s a volunteer firefighter for the New Berlin Fire Department in Pennsylvania, but recently his work has centered around a tool that might look more like a video game controller his students might use. He’s the department’s chief drone pilot and program coordinator. It's a role that quite literally wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t around.

A couple years ago when he started tinkering with a personal drone, he realized its potential for public safety missions. He wanted to introduce a drone into fire department operations, but encountered a lot of resistance.

“All of the chiefs come from an old background, and they looked at me like I was crazy. They’re like, ‘What do we need that for?’” recalled Geiswite.

He eventually rallied enough support for the idea to get the green light, on the stipulation that funding would come from outside the fire department. That’s when Geiswite realized he’d have to get creative to secure money for a device capable of saving lives.

Geiswite’s quest isn’t unique. In 2020, Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), a nonprofit that supports public safety unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations by training drone pilots for disaster operations, conducted a survey of public safety UAS professionals. The results revealed that grants and donations were essential for a majority of public safety drone programs.
Only 10 percent of respondents reported that grants or donations were “not at all important.”

“There’s lots of grants out there for fire trucks, equipment and EMS and all of that, but there is nothing that encompasses drones, until I came across the National Public Safety Drone Donation Program (NPS-DDP),” Geiswite said. “I’m happy I found their organization and figured out how to do this because the most frustrating thing is there is nothing out there to assist public safety agencies specifically with this type of technology.”

The NPS-DDP is a nonprofit that facilitates the donation of drones to public safety agencies through corporate and individual sponsors. The organization reports 45 drones have been donated to agencies through the program, impacting an estimated 7.9 million people who reside within the coverage areas of the departments who have been assisted.

A majority of the donations have gone to fire departments or search and rescue programs that operate in rural areas with rugged terrain or have waterways within their service zone.
A few months after his drone donation request, Geiswite received a response that a nearby fire department, the DuBoistown Fire and EMS wanted to re-donate a H520 thermal drone they received from NPS-DDP in 2020. The initial donation helped the DuBoistown community understand the value of the device, inspiring fundraisers that allowed the department to purchase more drones with upgraded features.

New Berlin received the DuBoistown drone donation in 2022, which opened the doors of communication and set the stage for the creation of a new task force called Northcentral ROVER Task Force involving Snyder, Northumberland, Union, Lycoming and Tioga counties.

Each agency had experienced funding challenges, so the task force was an avenue to pool resources and provide tools that were faster and required less manpower to save lives.

The task force now has a response trailer stocked with TV monitors, drones capable of thermal imaging, scene lighting and loudspeaker communications. The task force has been called on for search and rescue missions, criminal suspect searches, bomb threat investigations, surveying tornado damage and structure fire response. Funding came from NPS-DDP and private companies in the area following a public fundraising campaign that included showcasing the drone's capabilities at public safety events.

“We don’t get paid for any of this, we’re a 100 percent volunteer department. It’s a positive for the community, and they see that,” said Geiswite.

According to the 2020 AIRT Survey, search and rescue is the most popular use for a public safety agency drone aside from training and exercises, but they’re also used by many agencies in a wide variety of situations.

The original H520 thermal drone that inspired the two small Pennsylvania departments to expand their programs is on the move again. New Berlin has created enough buzz around its drone program to fundraise enough money to upgrade its equipment, so the department is giving the donation to another organization in need of a drone, the Mocanaqua Volunteer Fire Company in Shickshinny, Pa.

“This same drone has helped now to start protecting three communities,” said Mark Langley, CEO of NPS-DDP. “This heartwarming story showcases how public safety agencies can support one another, passing on drones they no longer need and positively impacting multiple departments.”

Drone donations in other communities have also inspired the expansion of programs.

Keith Milton, fire chief of the East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Department in Connecticut waited a year for a NPS-DDP drone to become available for his department. It’s now a popular tool for other agencies in the municipality and surrounding areas. He’s made room in the Fire Department’s operating budget to purchase an additional device with a thermal camera to respond to fires and search and rescue missions in the future.

“It isn’t just my fire department’s drone, we’re going to be the host and maintainer of it and make sure everything’s good, but it’s going to be operational and open to any of the agencies in town,” said Milton. “We’re starting to form a group where if the drone is needed by one of the agencies whether it be police, fire departments, fire marshal’s office, whatever, hopefully we’re going to have enough people that will be licensed.”

There’s no shortage of people willing to be trained and licensed, which Milton believes could be a game-changer to inspire different kinds of people to volunteer for their local fire department.

“Maybe they won’t be out there fighting fires, but that’s OK,” said Milton. “As we tell everybody in the volunteer fire service, there’s room for everybody. You may not like to climb ladders, but you can do this for me.”

The same observation has been made by several departments that have recently started drone programs, including the West Hartford Fire Department in Connecticut.

“There could be people they have on the department that are not tactical firefighters, this could be a use for them [so] they can be part of the organization and help out the community in a way that meets physical limitations, and some people have hesitations about running into a burning building,” said Daniel Savelli, network engineer for the West Hartford Fire Department. "It provides other avenues and opportunities for people to become involved.”

Savelli added that drones address other recruitment challenges for larger departments: They allow agencies to complete their duties faster and with fewer people.

“The overall hope is that this will not necessarily replace people, but I can get a drone up on a commercial building and fly over it a lot faster than a firefighter who is carrying 160 pounds of gear to hike up six flights of stairs to get to the roof,” said Savelli. “We can do the same type of thing with a lot less strain and less liability on that firefighter getting hurt or injured, and being able to save their energy toward a more specific mission.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.