Are Drones the First Responders of the Future?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have the potential to protect lives by being the first ones to investigate wildfires, crime scenes and chemical spills.

by Daniel Rothberg, Las Vegas Sun / January 12, 2016

(TNS) -- First responders’ work can be dirty, dangerous and difficult — searching for missing people, responding to toxic spills, diagramming crime scenes, investigating fires.

Advocates of the commercial drone industry say unmanned aircraft can make firefighters and law enforcement officers’ lives easier and safer.

Both the Clark County Fire Department and Metro Police have set up groups to explore drone use in the future. And the future could come soon. Metro hopes to begin using small drones within a year, the fire department within two years.

“We want to do it right,” said Capt. Michael Dalley, who heads a Metro advisory committee charged with integrating drones into the department’s work. “We don’t want to roll out a bad project.”

About four months ago, Metro started researching drones, evaluating the technology and creating a timeline for integration. Dalley said the department sees advantages to using drones to diagram crime scenes — a task a drone can complete in 30 minutes — and to supplement search-and-rescue operations.

“It cuts out the dangers, cuts down the cost, and we can send out multiple (unmanned aircraft), compared with one helicopter or (finding) enough people to do it by foot, which is very problematic at times,” Dalley said.

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, who ferried a bill through the Legislature that banned the weaponization of drones and required law enforcement to obtain warrants for flying drones near homes, said Metro officers were at the forefront of shaping the bill and appeared interested in using drones for crowd control and to provide aerial overviews of tactical operations as well. Anderson requested comments about the legislation from all Nevada agencies with peace officers.

The Clark County Fire Department offered input and worked with UNLV, Praxis Aerospace Concepts, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey to propose and design a study on how drones could be used in fire response and emergency management. The study would allow researchers to test drones in a simulated environment and determine what technology would be needed in more extreme environments.

But the project stalled as the department seeks funding.

Despite the money problems, the fire department has continued to explore drone use.

Small drones could access live fires before first responders arrive to determine scope and how many firefighters would be needed, Senior Deputy Fire Chief Erik Newman said. Drones also could provide an aerial view of blazes, allowing firefighters to make predictions about the fire.

Officials with both agencies recognize there are hurdles to surmount before they can integrate drones into their jobs. Buying and operating unmanned aircraft cost money, for instance, and the departments likely would have to tap into their operating budgets and request funding from the county to pay for the technology.

The commissioners “see a benefit to it,” Newman said. “It’s just a matter of how it’s managed.”

First responders also would need to create guidelines and training materials for drones’ use. Dalley said Metro already is developing a policy after reviewing the language used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Based on what we’ve looked at, our policy is more restrictive than what (the association is) putting out currently,” Dalley said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is winning public opinion.

When people think of drones, many envision military-grade Reapers and Predators that conduct surveillance and do strikes overseas. For that reason, local police and firefighters avoid the term “drone” and refer to the devices as unmanned aircraft systems. They stress that drones in Las Vegas would not be used for surveillance.

“What we’ve talked about is doing a public campaign, talking to all the press outlets (and) talking to our community groups,” Dalley said. “We’re not looking to eavesdrop on anyone.”

Sheron Hayes, a principal management analyst at the Clark County Fire Department who is studying drone integration, said the fire department’s intent is not to be intrusive “but to use the UAS … to better address our needs with respect to fires, suppression of fires, hazardous material incidents and safety challenges during incidents.”

©2016 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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