ORANGE, Conn. — When a massive police presence descended on Eisenhower Park in Milford recently and the area was put in lockdown because a despondent man was threatening to harm himself, the Orange Fire Department was called in to help because they had just acquired a special tool called an Unmanned Aerial System — more commonly known as a drone.

Fire Marshal Tim Smith said authorities flew the drone to provide overhead coverage of the vast park and support for the Milford Police Department’s SWAT team.

“We were able to provide aerial support to make sure no one came out,” he said.

The Orange fire and police departments will share the drone and are among only a handful of public safety departments in the state to be trained in the cutting-edge technology and own a drone.

Smith said the use of a drone has numerous applications in fire service.

Assistant Police Chief Anthony Cuozzo, who sees the drone as a great search and rescue tool in a place with vast open space such as Orange, credits the forward thinking of Police Chief Robert Gagne for bringing drone capability, including training, to the department.

Drones used at a professional level require a certification by the Federal Aviation Administration, as they are considered aircraft and their users are pilots.

Smith said they have to pilot the device around power lines, trees, roofs and airplanes.

Orange’s new drone flies up to 40 mph, has four large propellers, and is about 2 feet square. Drones aren’t allowed to fly more than 400 feet off the ground. The device is battery-operated. There is a screen on the controller and, in Orange’s case, a second screen available on an iPad.

Michael Eski, chief public safety instructor at DARTdrones, recently trained public safety officers in a class here — including fire and police personnel from other departments in Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford counties.

Eski, a police officer, firefighter and EMT in Florida, said having the drone puts Orange in an elite, but ever-growing class around the nation.

Eski said at last count just months ago, out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, fewer than 300 owned drones.

“Sadly, public safety agencies are always behind,” he said, noting the same phenomenon with body cameras — they were slow to take hold, and then suddenly every department wanted one.

Eski said although the benefit of a drone’s photographic application of drones is immeasurable, the flying devices are about much more than taking pictures.

In a standoff with a suicidal man in Florida, negotiators lost touch because the man’s cell phone died, he said. Police couldn’t move in because the man was armed, so they flew a drone over to drop him a phone charger. Negotiators were able to continue talking with the man who wound up convinced not to end his life, Eski said.

Eski said a drone can be used to drop a line to a hiker who has gone off a cliff at a place such as Sleeping Giant State Park or to drop a raft with dead-on accuracy to someone stranded in the water.

“It’s actually about thinking outside the box and asking, ‘What can’t we use this for?”

John DeCarlo, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a retired Branford police chief, agrees with Eski that the public safety field — as usual — is “playing catch-up” with technological innovations such as drones.

He said drones have potential with crime scenes and other aspects of police work such as search and rescue, but they also carry a lot of liability issues, not only in terms of crashing into property or people, but also by potentially being used in ways that violate privacy rights as set forth in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

While training and certification are rigorous, police officers and firefighters will not be using them every day, he said, so they could potentially be out of practice when an emergency hits and the operation may be affected by a stressful situation.

DeCarlo said because of those issues, he’s happy to see Orange police take the lead because they have such responsible leadership in Gagne and Cuozzo.

Smith said while hobbyists and videographers have been using drones for years, the cost of a professional-grade drone was prohibitive until recently.

Smith already has big plans for its application in the fire service here.

He said drones can fly it overhead during a fire to see hot spots and keep track of personnel.

“It adds a whole new dimension to scene management,” Smith said.

He said a drone can also be used to photograph the tops of buildings before a fire happens so they can pre-plan for tricky areas in case of fire.

Smith said he is eyeing using the drone as part of the routine inspection process. He said officials can fly it around a commercial kitchen exhaust under a roof to see if the area is clean rather than just take the word of the business owner as they do now.

He said they can use the drone measurements and photographs in fire investigations and to see how a fire progressed. Without the drone, firefighters relied on an aerial ladder to get them to high spots.

Cuozzo said there is tremendous potential for drones to help in search and rescue situations. He said they hope to add infrared to the drone for night searches.

Cuozzo said the goal is to have three officers trained as drone pilots.

Smith, who did extensive research on drones, said, “I see a lot of capability coming out of this.”


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Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com