Eyes in the skies: Police, fire using more drones to surveil active crisis scenes

In years past, getting a photograph of an active emergency scene, like the one above captured Sunday when the tugboat LT-5 became stuck on a sandbar in the inner harbor, would have required the mobilization of massive (and often unavilable) resources. Now, local police and fire departments are using drone-mounted cameras to get a real-time, bird’s-eye view of their theater of operation.

OSWEGO — When Oswego Fire Department Chief Randy Griffin heard Sunday morning that the historic U.S. Army tugboat LT-5 was stuck on a sandbar in Oswego Harbor, he mobilized not only his personnel but also a piece of cutting-edge technology.

While two of his officers manned the department’s light watercraft and approached the 78-year-old vessel, Griffin already had the best view anyone would have during the hour-long rescue.

High overhead was hovering the city’s drone aircraft, controlled by a member of the Oswego Police Department (OPD). The aircraft, equipped with high-definition and infrared cameras, provided overwatch on the inner harbor. Set up nearby in an Oswego Fire Department (OFD) truck was the drone command station, with multiple screens to view a complete panoramic of the scene.

“Not that long ago, a few years maybe, something like that would have required calling another agency and asking if we could use their helicopter, and if not, trying to ask another agency who may have a drone or similar setup,” Griffin told The Palladium-Times in an interview. “Now we can get a view of everything that’s happening within minutes.”

The Oswego fire and police departments have been working together in what city officials say is a highly beneficial partnership, and recently have deployed the new drone technology to emergency response situations.

“The primary mission of those drones is to avoid putting people in dangerous situations,” Griffin said. “If I don’t need to put somebody in a dangerous situation and I can instead put a drone in that situation, I would much rather do that, whether it be a police officer or a firefighter.”

Griffin said the departments have been using the drones since Paddlefest 2018 when the flying robots were used to watch over the hundreds of kayakers making their way from the locks south of Oswego to Lake Ontario.

Since then, the program has grown to a diverse fleet of aircraft.

“One drone is not able to do all the jobs that are needed. You need different-sized drones for different operations,” Griffin said.

Currently, the city has five drones available, he said. Included among the five are a smaller, agile drone used to navigate quickly; a medium-sized drone; a larger one; an underwater drone; and one solely used for training and practice.

For instance, Griffin said the underwater drone — the newest drone to the fleet — is used primarily for inspecting underwater pipes, while the largest of the aerial drones is used to carry large payloads and respond to areas with strong winds.

According to Griffin, the fire department has at least one certified drone officer per shift and a total of four firefighters trained to use drones.

OPD Chief Phil Cady said a pair of his police officers are also trained to use drones. Due to their light frame and control sensitivity, effective drone piloting takes a significant amount of practice.

“Chief Griffin and I have made it a priority to integrate operations and training exercises related to incidents that both departments respond to regularly,” Cady said.

When it’s time for take-off in an emergency situation, the departments cover each other with pilots — during a police drone operation, a member of the OFD is operating and flying the aircraft and vice versa.

“Having a single drone program with operators from both departments allows each agency to focus on the job-specific tasks at hand, while getting assistance through interagency support and not depleting personnel resources,” Cady said.

In order to use a drone during an emergency response, Griffin said all personnel are required to have a commercial drone certification through the Federal Aviation Administration. He noted that the certifications required from the departments are not exclusive to emergency services but are the same commercial licenses the public can attain.

“One of the major benefits we have seen through this program is the collaboration between the departments,” Griffin said. “It makes for better working relationships between city departments.”

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