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North Carolina Emergency Personnel Start Training with Drones

Officials with Lee County’s Emergency Services and Sheriff’s Office are learning the ropes when it comes to piloting unmanned aerial systems for use in the public safety space.

(TNS) — With a new drone use policy in place and some county staff already licensed to pilot unmanned aircraft systems, Lee County, N.C., is well on its way to a public safety program that takes advantage of the latest technology.

But using drones for public safety isn't just a matter of getting local government approval, according to Lee County Emergency Services Director Shane Seagroves.

The Lee County Emergency Services and Lee County Sheriff's Office employees licensed to pilot drones had to undergo training and pass a Federal Aviation Administration exam, Seagroves said. First, prospective pilots took a 40-hour class at Central Carolina Community College to prepare for the examination. Tuition was waived for emergency management and sworn law enforcement personnel.

"It covers most of the areas of a private pilot ground class, like for a plane," Seagroves said. "It covers weather, it covers airspace, it covers the rules and regulations of using a [drone]."

The last two days of the class were hands-on flying, Seagroves said, where students started off with simple maneuvers and ended with simulated search exercises where they had to find a T-shirt or jacket from the air.

To pilot drones for the county, employees need to pass both the FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot exam and the North Carolina Department of Transportation UAS Operator Permit test, which test their knowledge of things like drone operation regulations, airspace flight restrictions, the effect of weather on drone performance, and emergency and radio communication procedures.

"When you're driving a car, you have to learn the rules of the road," Seagroves said. "For the drone license, you basically have to learn the rules of the air, where you're allowed to fly, where you're not allowed to fly."

According to federal regulations, pilots are not allowed to fly drones higher than 400 feet, at night, or over people, highways, vehicles or government buildings. Drones are also not allowed to leave the pilot's line of sight.

"It's kind of nerve-wracking when I first started flying, just knowing how much money is involved in the drones that you do fly," said Detective Steve Freeman of the sheriff's office.

Freeman has flown drones as a hobby, he said, but the professional-quality models he practiced with for his pilot's license were different. Many had GPS that make them easier to operate, he said.

Even with GPS, though, "you have to be careful and mindful of where you're flying," he said.

Drones purchased by Lee County Emergency Services or the sheriff's office would be used for operations including finding missing people or fleeing suspects, investigating crime scenes, conducting rescues and surveying fire or weather damage from the air.

"Technology is constantly changing," Seagroves said. "This is a positive change. It's definitely something that makes our job easier to do, makes it more efficient and less costly."

Neither Lee County Emergency Services nor the sheriff's office currently have drones, but they plan to purchase some in the future. The Lee County Board of Commissioners approved the drone use policy required for the operation of drones in the county at a December meeting.

©2019 The Sanford Herald (Sanford, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.