Drones are chang­ing how emer­gency re­spon­ders work


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — When a trac­tor­trailer car­ry­ing chlo­rine pool tablets crashed and caught on fire on In­ter­state 24 in Rutherford County in De­cem­ber 2016, emer­gency per­son­nel weren’t able to get close enough to as­sess.

“It was so dan­ger­ous, and we weren’t re­ally sure what we were deal­ing with,” said Cody Smith with Rutherford County Emer­gency Med­i­cal Ser­vices, “and we couldn’t wear haz­mat suits be­cause they’re not flame re­sis­tant.”

A cou­ple of hours into the event, fire­fighter Jeff Cle­mente showed up and al­lowed the team to use his per­sonal un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle — com­monly known as a drone — for a fly­over. The drone was just what the team needed.

“We flew in and got some great footage. We saw that the ac­tual haz­ardous ma­te­rial wasn’t burn­ing any­more,” said Smith.

Since then, EMS has pur­chased its own drone sys­tem with al­lot­ted funds and each shift has a trained pi­lot on staff, Smith said. And there are plans to add a drone with night vi­sion and ther­mal imag­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, he added.

“The drone is an in­valu­able tool,” Smith said.

What was once viewed as a toy has turned out to be use­ful in a va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries, from emer­gency agen­cies to real es­tate bro­kers and even farm­ers.

“Drones are more so­phis­ti­cated than you might think,” said Lana Ax­el­rod, who heads up Mid­dle Ten­nessee-based UAV Coach along­side her busi­ness part­ner and hus­band, Alan Perl­man. “And they are a re­ally great tool for get­ting a cam­era up in the air with which you can cap­ture data, images and video.”

In the com­ing days, the Rutherford County Ge­o­graphic In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems team will use the tech­nol­ogy on a trip to the Se­vier County Solid Waste Com­post Plant in East Ten­nessee. The project is headed up by newly elected County Mayor Bill Ketron, who wants to ex­plore bring­ing that type of fa­cil­ity here.

“We’re plan­ning to take a cou­ple of un­manned sys­tems out there to get some 3D im­agery and get some video of the op­er­a­tions cen­ter there so we can learn more about it and bring in­for­ma­tion back to com­mis­sion­ers who may not be able to at­tend, or to our cit­i­zens to eval­u­ate whether or not Se­vier County’s op­er­a­tions might be use­ful in Rutherford County,” said Brian Robert­son, chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the county.

While some mod­els in the hob­by­ist range can be as cheap at $50, the more ad­vanced sys­tems cost into the thou­sands, Ax­el­rod said.

Learn­ing to fly a drone can be tricky, es­pe­cially with the more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced mod­els, Ax­el­rod said. And the more ad­vanced the sys­tem, the more ex­pen­sive it gets.

“So you want to pro­tect your in­vest­ment and learn how to op­er­ate it, and you want to learn how to safely op­er­ate th­ese things. They are fly­ing lawn­mow­ers. Those pro­pel­lers are very sharp,” Ax­el­rod said.

There are plenty of video demon­stra­tions of how the blades are sharp enough to turn the drone into a game of “Fruit Ninja,” she said.

Right now there are gray ar­eas in the in­dus­try when it comes to per­sonal use. But pro­fes­sional use is more reg­u­lated.

In June 2016, the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion fi­nal­ized reg­u­la­tory frame­work a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process that cov­ers the ma­jor­ity of low-risk, com­mer­cial small UAVs.

“The FAA has au­thor­ity over air space … but peo­ple are wor­ried about pri­vacy. No­body wants [a drone] in their back­yard,” said Ax­el­rod, who en­cour­aged hobby users to be mind­ful and cour­te­ous about when, how and where the drones are used. “It’s never a bad idea … to talk to your neigh­bor … and ex­plain what you’re do­ing.”

Un­like cars and air­planes that re­quire cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and train­ing, “there’s no flight pro­fi­ciency com­po­nent” to fly­ing UAVs, Ax­el­rod said.

“Be­cause it’s a rel­a­tively new in­dus­try … we don’t have stan­dards in place. … Who knows, maybe [the in­dus­try] will get there. … It’s def­i­nitely needed. … [Drones] are a se­ri­ous ma­chine,” Ax­el­rod said.

Mid­dle Ten­nessee State Univer­sity now of­fers an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree for Un­manned Air­craft Sys­tems through the Col­lege of Ba­sic and Ap­plied Sciences.

Ax­el­rod said the mis­sion of UAV Coach is to ed­u­cate peo­ple how to be smart and safe and “not cre­ate a bad name for the in­dus­try.”

The county’s GIS team plans to con­tinue im­prov­ing its pro­gram ca­pa­bil­i­ties and use with train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, said Robert­son.


The Chat­tanooga Po­lice De­part­ment and Hamil­ton County Sher­iff’s Of­fice used a drone to take this photo of a 2015 ac­ci­dent scene.

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