A CLOSER LOOK: Wash. Co. first responders use drones for rescue operations and officer safety

A Closer Look

Drones help local law enforcement in a variety of emergency situations.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA) — Washington County law enforcement and emergency responders use drones to rescue community members in dire circumstances and keep themselves safe in volatile situations.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County Emergency Management both have two drones.

“All across the country more and more emergency agencies are using them for search and rescue and tactical support,” said Capt. Ti Augustine with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. “We were seeing this trend and we started researching how it could be beneficial for us.”

Sheriff’s Office personnel purchased their first drone last fall and purchased a second earlier this year, according to Augustine.

“We have a deployment every couple of weeks,” Augustine said. “We helped Fayetteville (police) out with a lost autistic child recently.”

The Fayetteville Police Department does not have a drone, but Fayetteville police rely upon the Sheriff’s Office when one is needed, according to Sgt. Anthony Murphy, public information officer for the Police Department.

Murphy also cited the recent incident in which the autistic child went missing.

“A couple weeks ago we utilized the Washington County drone and the Emergency Management drone. They were there within minutes,” Murphy said.

Police Department personnel have considered purchasing a drone in the past.

“We’ve talked about it. There’s so many other things the police department needs that takes precedence over it,” Murphy said.

Fayetteville police also called upon drone support during a standoff a couple of months ago in which an armed man was barricaded inside a home. Law enforcement used the drone to get a close look at the potentially dangerous suspect and learn that he was in fact armed, according to Murphy.

“We were able to get eyes on the suspect without exposing any of the officers to danger,” Murphy said. “In that situation, not only does [a drone] keep the officers safe, but it keeps the suspect safe. We are able to deescalate the situation.”

Emergency Management received one drone from a community member who thought they would benefit from it. The other was purchased commercially. Both were acquired around the same time in late 2018/early 2019, according to John Luther, director of Emergency Management.

“We use it for assessment post-disaster, or we use it for search and rescue missions,” Luther said.

Both Emergency Management drones have been used minimally thus far, according to Luther.

“We have used them in some missions, and they certainly were helpful,” Luther said.

Drones can be used in dangerous situations to get a better look at an out of control blaze or a disaster area, such as a flood, instead of putting an emergency responder in danger. Protecting emergency responders take priority, Luther said.

Emergency Management has two drone pilots; one is a full-time employee, the other is a volunteer. Both have a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that enables them to use a drone.

Augustine described drones as force multipliers.

“Especially in search and rescue and tactical operations. It gives us the benefit of being able to see [from] a bird’s eye view and cover more ground in less time, when searching for people,” Augustine said. “In the tactical support situations, it gives us another layer of officer safety.”

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