MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - Drones (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are giving local first responders the eyes in the sky that they need to get you out of harm's way when you need help.
Chad Tillman, the Deputy Director of the Huntsville-Madison County Rescue Squad, said they now have a drone unit to assist on searches and rescues. The rescue squad is an all-volunteer agency that runs on donations and conducts technical rescue and extrication, water rescue and recovery, rough terrain search and rescue, and EMS First Response.
Tillman said of the drone resource, "It instantly gives you this operational picture that we've never had before."
The rescue squad used the drones on a recent lost kayaker call, and Tillman said it was amazing how well it worked to find the person they were searching for from the air.
"We put the drone up to 200 feet, looked up the river, came down, and I kid you not after the secondary review, there was our kayaker!" he said.
But he also noted that it is a layer of protection for rescuers, too.
"I realized, my goodness. I can see how the river flows. I can see where the channels are. I can see where to send my people up to go get this guy. It was really an eye-opener."
Tillman said often, rescuers put themselves in harm's way to save others. Using the UAS, they can see any threats or potential risks from above.
"When we put a boat out on the water, we are putting our rescuers lives in danger. We are putting them in the same water we want everybody to stay out of!" he said. "We want the UAS to be able to put that eye in the sky to make a better judgment on the safest way we can reach the people who are in danger."
Phil Owen, EnrGies Director of Operations, explained, "You can't drive there, but I can fly there. You can't get your rescue truck in there, but I can fly in there. And that's where the lives are going to be saved."
But a big part of drone response lies with training, and it all comes with a learning curve. That's what Tillman is working against now.
"We have just got to figure out the most effective way to use it," Tillman said.
He explained that the rescue squad wanted to jump into the drone world "with both feet," but they needed to do it properly.
"We want to make sure we are doing it right from the beginning," Tillman explained.
The rescue squad is working with a new company, Unmanned Aerial Systems Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (UAS ISAO) for training and certification. ISAO's are affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security as a way to share information about security threats. Tillman is also President of UAS ISAO. It is a 501c6 non-profit, he said, and is a membership organization and is open to UAS users, etc. UAS ISAO is using the Rescue Squad as a testbed for training, best practices, and hardware testing.
EnrGies, supports the UAS ISAO with technical expertise and hardware. Tillman started working with Phil Owen of EnrGies, a subject matter expert.
"If someone wanted to be on a search and rescue, what does it take?" Owen asked. "You can't just show up with your Phantom or your Inspire and say, 'I'm here to help!' You have to be trained. You have to be certified."
They are each part of something called the Alabama Working Group, which Tillman said is made up of UAS experts, first responders, and government leaders. The group wants to integrate drones into the national response system.
That's why Tillman and UAS ISAO have started offering training to not just the Rescue Squad, but neighboring agencies to spread the knowledge and get others on board.
"We've already started offering the basic instructor class. We've trained some people with Huntsville Fire, with county, and even one HEMSI employee in one of the classes," Tillman said.
"We tried to develop what a training program for someone to do this is," Owen said. "Not only do we want to develop a UAV program, but a UAV training program."
UAS ISAO is also working with local agencies, ALDOT, and some academic institutions to develop UAS programs to benefit first responders, Tillman said.
Long-term, Tillman, Owen, and others want to see drones used in national response to crises including flooding, storm aftermath, and search-and-rescue.
"The Alabama Working Group is very focused on the ability to get these systems together to be able to get them out and deploy them. We are working with FEMA Region 4," Tillman said.
He said as the need arises, they want to be able to have a coordinated response and do work to assist groups like FEMA during disasters or other events.
"We are very excited about what we can do with this," said Tillman.
"The more people who see it, the more will realize the advantages of it. Also, the cities and counties will realize this is a valuable tool that really saves lives," said Owen.