Broad River Rescuers Take to Air for a ‘Missing Hiker’

From left, Riley Beaman, Darshan Divakaran and John Martin at Broad River Fire Department’s Shumont station watch Aug. 15 as Martin pilots his drone in search of a man playing a lost hiker. (Photo: Paul Clark)

T uesday was training day in Broad River. On Aug. 15, drones buzzed over the Broad River Fire Department’s station in the Shumont community in a simulated search for a missing man.

Blue jeans, gray T-shirt, about 5-foot-10 was the description Broad River firefighters and Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies were given. Their mission was to learn how a drone could be used to scan the fields and woods in extreme southeast Buncombe County to find him.

Instructor John Martin, a pilot with the N.C. Public Safety Drone Academy, stared into a widescreen monitor under a tarp behind the fire department to see what his camera-equipped drone was seeing, some 200 feet up. Houses and stands of woods passed across the screen. As the local emergency workers watched, Martin called into the trailer on whose side the widescreen TV was mounted.

“Can you see anything, Sarah?” he shouted.

From inside came a muffled reply.

“No,” Sarah Martin said. At the controls of a second drone some 100 feet higher in the air, she was looking into a second monitor. John Martin’s drone was in view, far below. But there was no sign on the lost hiker they were looking for.

This was the second mission the simulators and their students had done that day, this time in woods that were denser, harder to see through from above. The afternoon had gotten hot by then. Most, if not all, of the dozen emergency workers assembled for the drill were sweating, coming out of the shade of the fire station to watch John and Sarah Martin work their machines over a five-square-mile search area.

“So many things have to work in so many ways” for rescues to occur, John Martin would say in half an hour, “so that when someone is out there, we’re not figuring out what we have to do.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles, as drone are sometimes called, have been used by police departments for a few years now, not without considerable concern and protest. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses them. So do the FBI and the Department of Defense. A report compiled by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College notes that 347 local fire, police and emergency departments were using them in 2016. Half of them started using them just the year before, according to the report written by Dan Gettinger.

The N.C. Public Safety Drone Academy is starting up in the fall. In the meantime, it is conducting field training, for free, for local law enforcement groups (the Aug. 15 event in Broad River was the academy’s second field training, after one in Charlotte). The academy, at Montgomery Community College midway between Greensboro and Charlotte, got its first drone a year ago and has been training law enforcement officers since, said Riley Beaman, the community college’s director of health and public safety programs.

Beaman developed the academy program and curriculum. The academy has now 40 drones and eight instructors.

The academy trains its students (anyone can apply) to use drones and teaches them the laws and regulations that apply to their use. After learning on a simulator, students spend most of the class outside using the academy’s many drones.

The course fee – $181.60 – is waived for qualified emergency service members and first responders. Several of them – firefighters and deputies – crowded around the Martins as they searched for the “lost hiker.”

Inside the trailer – the “UAV mobile station and command center,” in the academy’s parlance – Sarah Martin kept scanning her monitor, directing John Martin and his drone to various patches of Shumont. Within minutes, a sweat-drenched guy – blue jeans, gray T-shirt, about 5-foot-10 – was located. Mission over.

“Fire departments and police departments train most of their time” on the job, John Martin said. “There’s a reason for that. They have to stay current (on the technology). You must be up to date on every part of it.”

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