Clay County Sheriff’s Office purchases 3 drones to assist with search and rescue efforts, disaster response

Zoey Fields

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday the rollout of the agency's newest public safety tool, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones.

Using drones equipped with high-resolution cameras has become widespread among law enforcement agencies to keep their citizens and personnel safe, perform search and rescue missions and respond to and complete damage assessments of natural disasters. Clay County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Deputy Andrew Ford said.
The Clay County Sheriff's Office new drones will be used in crime investigations and disaster preparedness such as hurricanes.Photo byClay County Sheriff's Office

After several months of researching drones, Florida state statutes, training requirements and industry best practices, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office developed its own policies and procedures to deploy drones in the community. They purchased three drones, of which two will be assigned to patrol operations and the third is assigned to the Emergency Preparedness Unit, Ford said.

“Purchasing drones versus helicopters is a considerable cost saving for our county taxpayers,” he said. “A piloted police helicopter can cost taxpayers $500,000 to $3 million to purchase and up to $200- $400 an hour to fly. We would also need multiple pilots, ground crews, co-pilots, hangar space, and helipads.”

With their camera technology, drones have become widely used among U.S. law enforcement. This technology allows law enforcement to become better aware of situations. They are durable, portable and immediately deployable in the field for initial responders on the scene, Ford said.

Their thermal-imaging or FLIR (forward-looking infrared) cameras separate heat sources from other surroundings, making hiding or lost people easier to find in foliage or water. The drones will help the sheriff’s office with search and rescue efforts, active shooter incidents, disaster response and crime scene processing all without the need to put people or officers in harm's way, he said.

"Several months back, when a couple of our elderly citizens went to walk their dogs in Jennings State Forest, their dogs ran off into a wooded area, and they went after them. They became disoriented and wandered for some time before calling 911,” Sheriff Michelle Cook said. “CCSO patrol and CCFD responded and tried to find them for over an hour. My Emergency Preparedness Unit responded and launched their drone, which was the only drone we had at the time. Within minutes, the drone located the couple and their dog. The husband was in medical distress from severe dehydration and needed to be rescued from where they were located. If we had not been successful with the drone in locating these folks when it did, this situation might have had a very different outcome – a recovery versus rescue. That’s why we’re pleased to announce the implementation of this program into our agency's patrol operations."

"I understand that some in our community have concerns about invasion of privacy or illegal entry of property concerns. Florida state statutes spell out requirements for a Florida law enforcement agency to fly a drone, and we are committed to following those guidelines and obtaining search warrants when required. We will operate our program openly to enhance the safety of this community and will follow the law."

Click here to review Florida drone laws.

The agency has eight deputies who are certified as remote pilots and received flight certification training before operating any of the drones, abiding by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines, Ford said. This team was also trained on Clay County’s law enforcement policies, Florida law, Federal Aviation Administration standards, how to properly request to enter a no-fly zone around military locations or airports, and on the care and maintenance of the drones.

All training and missions are tracked and documented according to Florida state statutes and agency policies, Ford said.

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Accredited journalist with experience covering a wide range of stories consisting of breaking news, city and county government, crime and courts, feature stories and local interest. Facebook Bulletin writer, reporter; The Learning Curve. Twitter: @zoeyfields0

Jacksonville, FL

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