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Drones Give a Lift to Virginia Beach Police and Fire Departments

Drones Give a Lift to Virginia Beach Police and Fire Departments

VIRGINIA BEACH When a detective broke into an apartment to arrest a man on child porn charges last summer, a barrage of gunfire erupted.

A bullet tore through the detective’s shoulder. He fired back, then fled.

For the next several hours, Bryan Cage remained barricaded inside the apartment, above a detached garage. Officers surrounded the area, but kept their distance so they wouldn’t get shot.

As the standoff wore on, the commander came up with an idea to safely keep an eye on Cage: a drone with a camera.

The small, unmanned aircraft could maintain a close-up view of the scene without risking officers’ lives. 

The drone was one of two the department bought about a year and half ago, joining hundreds of other law enforcement and rescue agencies across the country that have begun using them in recent years.

The city’s fire department bought two a short time later.

Virginia Beach and Suffolk currently are the only cities in South Hampton Roads that have drone programs. Chesapeake is planning to start one and Portsmouth is looking into the possibility, according to spokeswomen for those police departments.

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Drones are especially helpful in search and rescue operations – such as looking for lost boaters or swimmers – because they can cover a large area in a short time, said Battalion Chief Brian Sullivan, who heads the Virginia Beach Fire Department’s technology bureau.

One was sent up at the Oceanfront during the Polar Plunge earlier this month to watch for swimmers who might have gotten into trouble in the frigid water.

“A lot of times, it’s hard for them to give us an exact location,” out on the water, Sullivan said. “This way, we can save a lot of time finding them, and it’s a lot cheaper than getting a helicopter out there.”

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Master Firefighter Chris Stockhowe demonstrates the use of one of Virginia Beach Fire Department’s new drones at Station 19 on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Stephen M. Katz | The Virginian-Pilot

At large fire scenes, drones can help firefighters see the scope of the blaze and where it may have started and determine where best to send resources, he said. The fire department deployed one while fighting a large mulch fire near Naval Air Station Oceana last year.

“We used it to see how far the fire went back and where to send people,” Sullivan said.

A drone also can alert them to a potential roof collapse – one of the biggest hazards for firefighters.

They’ve frequently been used to assess damage after a storm or other disaster. They were flown in Houston after Hurricane Harvey to determine where to send rescuers.

Master Police Officer Reed Ray, a helicopter pilot who also is trained and certified to operate drones, runs the Virginia Beach Police Department’s program. He maneuvered the one flown during the standoff at Cage’s home last June.

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Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Reed Ray demonstrates a DJI Inspire 1 drone outside the Police Special Operations Center Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach police and fire departments are using drones in some of their fire fighting, rescue and law enforcement efforts.

L. Todd Spencer | The Virginian-Pilot

Using a handheld controller that looks like the ones for video games, Ray hovered the drone around Cage’s Ohio Street apartment. A high-definition camera mounted under it could be pivoted to capture a zoomed-in view, which Ray could see from a tablet computer attached to the controller. The commander also was able to watch from a live feed streamed to his mobile command center. 

“It just gave us an overall bird’s-eye view of the situation,” said Ray, one of five certified drone pilots working for the police department. “We were looking to see if there was any movement by the suspect. If he was walking by a window, or if he was trying to get out a back door or a back window.”

The area is covered by trees and power lines, so visibility was limited until Cage walked out and surrendered about six hours after the standoff began, Ray said.

But the drone did allow police to see that Cage’s hands were empty and up in the air when he walked out. The vital information was relayed to the SWAT team officers waiting nearby, who then rushed in and handcuffed him as he lay on the ground. Cage was charged with attempted capital murder of a law enforcement officer.

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Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Reed Ray demonstrates a DJI Inspire 1 drone outside the Police Special Operations Center Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 in Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach police and fire departments are using drones in some of their fire fighting, rescue and law enforcement efforts.

L. Todd Spencer | The Virginian-Pilot

“It ended peacefully, just as it should have,” Ray said. 

All of Virginia Beach’s police and fire department drones are consumer-grade ones that can be bought online. The police department spent a total of $3,000 for the two it obtained, while the fire department paid about $5,000 for theirs. 

“Starting off, we didn’t want to go crazy and get anything too expensive,” Ray said. “With it being a new program, we wanted to make sure it fit the city’s needs. So far, we’re finding they’re serving their purpose very well.”

The drones run on rechargeable batteries that only last 20 to 30 minutes, so the pilots keep plenty of extras on hand to swap out when one runs low.

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Master Firefighter Chris Stockhowe demonstrates the use of one of Virginia Beach Fire Department’s new drones at Station 19 on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Stephen M. Katz | The Virginian-Pilot

The cost of operating and maintaining drones is minimal, especially compared to the expense of flying a helicopter, Sullivan said.

“Depending on how you fly them, they can last a long time,” the battalion chief said. 

The fire department hopes to eventually obtain one with a thermal-imaging camera, like the one York County uses. Those are able to detect heat, which will help locate people and figure out where the hot spots are in a fire, Sullivan said.

Police used theirs for the first time last March to assess damage after a tornado ripped through the Indian River Road area, tearing roofs off numerous houses.

A few weeks later, they were using one to monitor crowds at College Beach Weekend when shots suddenly broke out. The drone’s camera captured the scene as the panicked crowd fled the area, but no suspects were located.

They also have been helpful in investigating fatal car crash scenes by providing an aerial view of skid marks and other evidence left at the site, Ray said.

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Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Reed Ray demonstrates a DJI Inspire 1 drone outside the Police Special Operations Center Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 in Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach police and fire departments are using drones in some of their fire fighting, rescue and law enforcement efforts.

L. Todd Spencer | The Virginian-Pilot

The drones were purchased with more than just police and rescue work in mind, Ray said. They likely will be used to record footage of places like the Oceanfront for marketing and advertising, and to assist other city departments that might benefit from an overhead view, he said.

All pilots must be FAA certified and pass a safety course administered by the police department, Ray said.

The drones can be flown most everywhere, but pilots are required to contact officials at Naval Air Station Oceana and Norfolk International Airport if they want to fly one within 5 miles of those facilities.

Battalion Chief Brian Sullivan demonstrates the use of one of Virginia Beach Fire Department’s new drones at Station 19 on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Stephen M. Katz | The Virginian-Pilot

They’re not allowed to fly them directly over people for safety reasons in the event of a crash, and will only record footage of homes and areas that are involved in a police, fire or rescue situation, Sullivan said. The pilot or other observer must maintain sight of them at all times.

The pilots keep the cameras – which can be pivoted in all directions – pointed straight until they get to the area they want to investigate, Sullivan said. Video is recorded, so if people are concerned about privacy violations, they’re allowed to view it, he said.

“We follow every state law and FAA regulation,” Ray said. “We implore the citizens (operating private drones) to do the same.” [Click for More]

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