Drones now part of Jacksonville police & firefighters' fleets

Both agencies are now staffed by FAA-licensed UAV operators

Law enforcement and emergency crews turning to drones to assist in high-risk situations.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In addition to gunfire-detection technology and a bullet-tracing database, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office now has access to some extra eyes in the sky to help keep the public safe.

On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office unveiled its fleet of drones that can be used for search and rescue missions, disaster recovery and surveillance, as well as monitoring active SWAT situations. The agency formed its own unmanned aerial vehicle unit in January. That unit is now led by a lieutenant in charge of a sergeant and two full-time detectives who are FAA-certified to operate the aircraft.

“So far this year, the JSO unmanned aerial systems unit has conducted approximately 535 flights in support of these missions,” JSO Investigations and Homeland Security Director Nick Burgos said. “It should be noted that these flights cost a fraction of traditional manned flights. The unmanned aerial system unit also utilizes specialized equipment to detect, locate, identify and track operators who are flying UAVs in restricted flight areas that pose a potential danger to citizens.”

Football fans might have even noticed them hovering at Thursday night's Jaguars-Titans game.

RELATED: First responders want drones to help with search & rescue missions

The new unit is not unique to JSO. In fact, Burgos said, more than 350 public agencies across the country have access to the cutting-edge technology and are using it for public safety. Like JSO, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department also has its own fleet of drones piloted by seven FAA-licensed drone pilots, including three captains, a lieutenant and three engineers, JFRD Interim Fire Chief Keith Powers said.

Powers said the need for drones became clear to the fire department after getting help from a private drone operator in the search for a missing child last year. The department then acquired several drones of its own in September 2018. Since then, the department has received authorization from the FAA to operate anywhere within 45 nautical miles of Jacksonville, though there are some exceptions.

“The use of drones has dramatically improved the safety of first responders by providing real-time information to incident commanders who must make split-second decisions,” Powers said. “In addition, this program has greatly enhanced JFRD’s ability to fulfill our core mission, and that is saving the lives and property of the citizens that we serve.”

Not only does the technology keep firefighters safer by allowing them to scan locations for potential hazards ahead of time, the chief said, the drones are also equipped with advanced thermal imaging that can help track down missing persons and unseen hot spots at the scenes of fires.

“An example of that would be a train derailment,” Powers said. “Instead of having to take personnel and go down to the train derailment and determine what hazardous materials are leaking, we can actually take the drone and take a meter in there to measure the atmosphere and not endanger our personnel.”

It’s unclear how much the drones cost, or whether grant funding helped pay for them.

JSO Lt. Christopher King acknowledged there are privacy concerns that come with law enforcement’s use of drones, but he said both agencies are careful to follow the law set forth by local, state and federal governments to protect the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.

“If you have a suspect that is on the run and it is a fresh issue, life-or-death circumstances, anything of that nature, we can certainly put it up,” King said. “But I can guarantee you that we also have a conversation with the State Attorney’s Office to ensure that we are in compliance.”

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Florida-born multi-media journalist pays special attention to issues in St. Johns County.