Drones Provide 400-Foot Perspective on Public Safety Issues for Hamilton County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office

The sheriff's office is the only law enforcement agency in Hamilton County that has an unmanned aerial surveillance system program.

by Emmett Gienapp, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. / May 22, 2017

(TNS) — Sometimes, the best way to look at something is from 400 feet in the air — especially when that something is a fugitive trying to outrun the police.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has learned that lesson well over the last year by flying its fleet of drones over crash scenes, SWAT standoffs and wildfires to get an overview of thorny situations, all without having to put deputies at risk.

So far the sheriff's office is the only law enforcement agency in Hamilton County that has an unmanned aerial surveillance system program, and deputies are finding the potential applications of their drone division are myriad.

"They have a lot of advantages," Sheriff Jim Hammond said Friday while watching a detective fly a drone at Chester Frost Park. "It's good to get up there and cover a wide area in a short amount of time."

The drone division has proven as much by responding to a variety of calls over the last several months, including a wildfire in Rhea County, Tenn. Firefighters asked for air support because the terrain was rough and they needed an accurate picture of the fire.

"They couldn't see from their command post," said Detective Marty Dunn, one of the pilots. "We made sure their fire lines had actually stopped the fire."

Dunn said drones can be useful in a number of situations, such as bomb disposals, natural disasters and rescue missions. His team has flown 160 training missions since April 2016 to cover many of those scenarios, according to a news release.

He said they recently flew a mission to locate a missing person and cleared much of the mountain the individual was supposedly lost on, allowing them to focus resources elsewhere.

"We covered a large portion in about 10 minutes," he said. "The ticks that we didn't get from walking all that was worth it."

Using drones also saves the department a boatload of money, since the division can quickly run up a camera to peek around instead of scrambling a helicopter that would cost considerably more to fly.

"The cost to fly manned aviation in public safety is estimated around $350 per hour," the news release stated. But law enforcement agencies using drones estimate operational costs are just below $25 per hour, according to the release.

Rather than ponying up several million dollars to invest in a helicopter and maintain it, law enforcement agencies can buy drones for a sliver of that cost, saving precious resources for other needs.

The sheriff's office couldn't say Friday how much it has spent on the drone program to date, but the Times Free Press reported in October the department had spent about $9,000 for training $10,000 for five drones for operational use and one drone for training.

"We have to think in terms of the money we have," Hammond said.

Cost and effectiveness may mean little to residents worried about the implications greater drone usage might have for their personal privacy.

"The biggest negative I hear from people is that 'You're going to be looking in bedroom windows,'" Hammond said.

Sheriff's office pilots said drones are used exclusively for limited purposes and missions and video footage cannot be used to obtain search warrants if something is seen from the sky. Incidental footage also must be deleted within 24 hours.

But that's not enough for groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee, which supports stricter state and federal laws to guarantee citizens' privacy.

"We believe that drones should be prohibited for indiscriminate mass surveillance, with their use by law enforcement only permitted where there are grounds to believe they will collect evidence relating to a specific instance of criminal wrongdoing, or in emergencies," ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg wrote in an email.

"As they stand, our state's privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that new drone technology will be used responsibly and consistently with our democratic values. Courts are still wrestling with the constitutionality of the usage of this technology," she wrote.

The proliferation of drones over the last several years has presented problems nationwide as people begin to experiment with privately owned drones that are restricted from many areas.

"Over crowds — that's a no-no," Dunn said. "Flying over an open-air event with more than 100 people is illegal."

Generally speaking, drones cannot be flown into or over events such as the Riverbend Festival or football games without permission from event's directors. Not only would the pilot potentially be sidestepping the entrance cost of the event, the drone could fall from several hundred feet and hurt someone.

This is new territory for the Federal Aviation Administration, which has found itself grappling with an uptick in drones cluttering American air space. The FAA has authorized the sheriff's office to fly under certain restrictions, but there are many more drones being flown by members of the public in dangerous areas.

"Over the last two years, the FAA has received numerous reports from pilots and residents about unmanned aircraft systems – UAS, or 'drones' – around some of the nation's busiest airports, including JFK," an FAA news release read.

Dunn said private drones can be especially problematic in situations where authorities need open air space. Life Force air ambulance helicopters will actually circle in the air instead of landing if a drone is detected in the response area, because it could get caught in a propeller and cause the helicopter to crash.

"Life Force will not come in," he said. "In those situations, minutes count. Seconds count."

Dunn said he understands why drone hobbyists may be tempted to fly into a fireworks show or over an emergency situation, but that flight could have serious consequences, so his advice is to leave it on the ground.

"It's cool, I totally get it, but it's illegal," he said.

©2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.). Visit the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) at www.timesfreepress.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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