By Kevin Deutsch
After a hurricane walloped Tallahassee, Ryan Himmel and his team of Coral Springs drone pilots sprang into action, flying unmanned aerial systems (UAS) high above the capital to map infrastructure damage and complete reconnaissance missions.
Bridges were flooded. Roads were impassable. The city, officials said, was a disaster area.
For Himmel and the Coral Springs municipal drone team, the hope is that practicing for a pretend storm will help save lives the next time real disaster strikes.
“We’ve used the technology in past hurricanes, we’ve used it in emergencies to find missing people, we’ve used it to locate fires in a structure,” said Himmel, UAS Program Manager for Coral Springs, who led a contingent of city staffers to the Tallahassee event held June 2- 4.
They were among roughly 75 police officers, firefighters, and emergency management workers attending the two-day training.
“This is the future” of emergency response, Himmel, 32, said of UAS flights. “It’s another set of eyes that gives a unique perspective you can’t always get from the ground.”
Coral Springs’ drone team was among the first to take flight among Broward municipalities, launching about three years ago.
During that time, they’ve helped the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department in numerous emergencies, using UAS cameras that track “heat signatures” to pinpoint hard-to-reach fires, potentially saving lives and properties, Himmel said.
Working with the police department, drone pilots have flown UAS over Coral Springs to search for fleeing suspects and missing children, even beaming real-time video back to decision-makers in uniform.
It’s technology that can potentially save an officer’s life, Himmel said.
“If they’re searching for someone, we can see over the other side of a fence where they can’t,” Himmel said of police in pursuit.
Coral Springs’ UAS fleet consists of four drones: The DJI M210v2, DJI Inspire 1, DJI Mavic Enterprise Dual, and the DJI Mavic, “each with its own unique capabilities,” Himmel said.
The city’s UAS team currently has four staffers, but Himmel, the city’s video production manager, expects their ranks to grow as UAS assistance increases.
“We all have our own jobs,” outside the UAS program, “but we are all on-call 24/7. Any time a call is warranted for the use of the technology, we respond to the scene.”
Himmel is also helping other municipalities in South Florida launch drone programs.
“It’s extremely beneficial,” he said of the technology.
Mike Moser, Deputy Chief of the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department, said drones are an important tool for the city’s firs-responders, regardless of which agency is leading an emergency response.
“We all work very well together,” Moser said.
“Drones are very new for some people,” he added. “But really they’ve been around for many years, and we’re fortunate that we work for a city that’s forward-thinking” on the issue of UAS.
“There are a lot of cities that don’t have them, and they’re missing out on the benefits.”
At the police department, Deputy Chief Brad McKeone said drones are a vital technology during searches for missing children, especially kids on the autism spectrum who may be drawn to water.
“When the BSO helicopter isn’t available, we’ve used it to look for missing children, to help us check areas that have waterways and canals,” McKeone said. “It really is an invaluable tool…that allows us to search for, and in some cases locate people and get them back home safely.”
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- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.
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