Several law enforcement agencies in the region have taken notice and recently started using some of the latest drone technology for emergency operations.
PANAMA CITY — Flashlights, helicopters and a good pair of walking shoes are some of the most common tools used by law enforcement for search and rescue.
But recent technological advancements in small, unmanned aeronautical vehicles or UAVs have brought a new line of low-cost and user-friendly drones to the market. Several law enforcement agencies in the region have taken notice and recently started using some of the latest drone technology for emergency operations.
According to Sheriff Tommy Ford, Bay County Sheriff’s Office first felt the need for an extra "eye in the sky" during an active shooter situation in Panama City on May 22, 2018. Walton County homicide suspect Kevin Holroyd exchanged gunfire with police during an hours-long standoff that ended in his death inside of a gasoline-soaked apartment in Panama City.
The Panama City Beach Police Department flew the drone during the active shooter situation to give law enforcement an overhead view of the situation. The drone pilot was able to fly the UAV into the crime scene after the suspect was dead to check for additional threats to law enforcement.
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"We really saw the value of this capability at the Briarwood active shooter situation," Ford said. "That came with putting together a policy of when we would use it and who would be qualified to fly it. And taking into account those legal parameters we’ve got with the Florida Statute. And taking into account our appreciation of people’s privacy."
He added that the UAV’s will not be used for surveillance. It also doesn’t replace their helicopters or any other search and rescue personnel. Ford said that multiple observers in the air could benefit an emergency situation.
BCSO Corporal Dennis Rozier, who leads the BCSO drone program, said that he finds the drones to be extremely useful for documenting the aftermath of a natural disaster like Hurricane Michael and crime scene photography.
"It’s super valuable for crime scene photography," he said. "If we have a homicide we like to get top-down pictures of the scene. If there’s a lot of tree cover on a house a helicopter can’t do that. He can’t get below the trees but I can, I can get up as high as the tree branches will let me and get a top-down view underneath the canopy."
The BCSO currently uses three drones for their program. Two DJI Mavic Pro UAV’s and one DJI Phantom 4.
Ford hopes to use the UAV’s in the future to help streamline information during emergency situations. His goal would be to feed images from drones, helicopters and other sources into a mobile command post vehicle.
"As we manage the incident, we’ll be able to have a full appreciation of what’s going on around us," he said.
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Franklin County Sheriff’s Office deputies used a DJI Mavic Air to help locate a missing 4-year-old girl in November.
"We had a missing child and in a matter of minutes once the drone was up we were able to find her in the swamp. I think it kind of speaks for itself," Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said of the department’s use of drones. "A deputy was able to launch the drone to search the nearby area and spot the missing child within about 20 minutes."
According to an Apalachicola Times staff report, the child was trapped in a heavily wooded area that was about 100 yards from her home. She was muddy, wet and had several scratches on her arms and legs. She wasn’t wearing shoes or socks in the 50 degree weather.
"It enables us to go places that otherwise it would take many hours for people to search by foot," Smith said. "Who knows, we might not have found her. She might have been out in the cold or freezing weather and might have perished."
Smith said that the FCSO plans to use the drone for many other types of low altitude search and rescue operations. Drone pilots can easily fly the aircraft over water to help locate distressed swimmers and search the local heavily-wooded areas.
"It seems like we have more than our fair share of opportunities to use this thing," Smith said. He added that the drones will not be used for surveillance because it violates Florida statutes.
According to the 2019 Florida Statute 934.50 or the "Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act" "A law enforcement agency may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information."
"We’re going to use them to save lives. It’s not an investigative tool," Smith said.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office will have completed training and be ready to use its drone within the next few months, according to agency spokeswoman Michele Nicholson.
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She said early on the drone will primarily be used for search and rescue missions and crime scene analysis, particularly if the analysis has to be conducted in a large area.
Fort Walton Beach
The Fort Walton Beach Police Department's four-member drone unit, headed by Crime Scene Investigator Sheila Mercier, will have completed six weeks of training and be ready to go to work within a week or two, according to Lt. Mark Hayse.
UAV's will be used for crime scene photography, filming and mapping, Hayse said, and could come in particularly handy at serious traffic accidents.
"Our unit has mapping and measuring software that we're hoping will significantly cut down the time of road closures," he said. "Sometimes, with all the work that needs to be done on a crash scene, the closures can be six hours or so; we think this could cut down that time to about an hour."
Drones can also potentially be used to track down missing children or fleeing suspects and to monitor large gatherings and events, Hayse said.
Walton County Sheriff’s Office investigators Philip Spires and Chad Goleta have been working with an agency drone for about 18 months, with the focus thus far primarily on training.
"We’re learning how to use it to better assist us and the citizens of the county," Spires said.
But the department drone has been successfully deployed twice on rescue missions.
The UAV unit was called out on one occasion to a wooded area near Freeport, where a troubled young man had been missing for about 24 hours, Spires said.
Coordinating with the Department of Defense on Eglin Air Force Base reservation property, Spires and Goleta, with nightfall approaching, deployed a thermal imaging system to locate the missing man by detecting the heat coming off his body.
"He was dehydrated, but otherwise OK," Spires said. "If we hadn’t located him, he could have potentially been in a bad way."
The potential for using drones in police work, as well as in other areas of emergency service, is only just being realized, Spires said. He envisions a future where UAV’s will be used in "any type emergency situation," including search and rescue, hostage situations or even mass casualty events.
In Walton County the Sheriff’s Office also oversees a fire district operating in the north end of the county. Spires foresees using drones for such things as helping to detect hot spots during wild fire events.
While the Federal Aviation Administration presently limits drone operators to "visual line of sight" activities, they could still likely be deployed in some water rescue situations as well, Spires said.
"The sky’s the limit when you’re up there," he said.