Sometimes, the bad guy simply gives up and surrenders.
“It happens,” said Capt. Benjamin Worcester, Special Operations division commander of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.
“They feel psychologically defeated because they know that’s there’s little chance of them escaping a drone,” Worcester added.
Drones are becoming a part of the modern-day lawman’s toolbox, giving officers a different perspective from the air, as well as a live vantage point that they never had before.
“It’s a tool that adds to the arsenal of things that may be used to help us save lives, and in the end, that’s what it’s all about,” said Worcester, who leads the county’s law enforcement drone program.
It’s a trend that’s exploding across the county, as more and more first responders are getting pilots trained to fly drones in order to combat crime, evaluate fires, and provide vital assistance during both natural and manmade disasters.
On Wednesday, nearly 30 first responders from the region participated in an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Public Safety Workshop, hosted by the sheriff’s office.
The event was held at the Ford T. Humphrey Public Safety Center, located at 1225 Courthouse Road in Stafford.
Stafford was chosen as the host site for the workshop largely due to the success of the department’s own drone program. The program, which was established as a first in Virginia in 2017, has developed an exception reputation for success, not only across Virginia, but across the country as well.
“What Stafford has done is phenomenal, to say the least,” said Charles Werner, director of DRONE RESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance of Miami, Fla.
Werner, a retired Charlottesville fire chief, also serves as an advisory board member of the Center of Innovation Technology Virginia, the agency that organized and led Wednesday’s workshop.
“Stafford County has advanced drones to where they are part of the law enforcement operation very early, as opposed to being reactive later,” said Werner.
Wednesday’s workshop not only showed attendees how to develop their own air surveillance program from scratch, but also dove deep into where drone technology is heading in the future, as well as what it can be used for. Attendees also examined numerous case studies from other agencies on how to best implement airborne technology to help improve public safety during their own daily operations.
Sgt. Jared Hagenow of the George Mason University Police Department said his organization is presently using drones on an “as-needed” basis, but his department is looking to expand their use in the future.
“We do a lot of practicing with them now, but we’re creeping closer to patrol readiness to support patrol operations,” said Hagenow.
Samantha Ashby, an emergency communications specialist with the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office, said she’s scheduled to take the pilot’s course soon. Ashby currently serves as a volunteer on that county’s drone ground crew.
“I’ve been fascinated with it,” said Ashby. “I’m able to get out and see how things are done and how law enforcement does things, how fire and rescue does things.”
In addition to law enforcement duties, drones are also deployed in support of a wide variety of emergency or informational gathering situations.
“We respond to fires and we use them for overwatch,” said Werner. “We can use the thermal image camera to look at a structure, we can see heat signatures and when you wouldn’t want to put people on a roof because there’s a structural integrity issue there.”
Werner also said drones use thermal imaging to see people high atop roofs of structures and also use forward-looking infrared imaging during search and rescue operations.
Drones can also help assess environmental disasters, aid people in distress by dropping in a life preserver or a tow line in for a victim struggling in a body of water, or even help with traffic assessments following a vehicle crash.
“A traffic crash reconstruction can be done in a third of the time,” said Werner. “That means it clears the roadways more quickly, we have fewer secondary accidents.”
Since being brought into service, Stafford’s drones have flown more than 200 missions and have helped locate dozens of missing, endangered or wanted individuals. The drones have also assisted deputies in barricade situations, or where there is a threat of suicide when a potential danger exists between the subject or others.
Stafford County has 10 drones in their fleet and 13 deputy pilots to fly them. Each pilot is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
When the program first began, the county sent potential pilots to a 40-hour class in preparation for the FAA’s drone pilot license exam.
“We do that in-house now, because we have years of experience and have developed our own program to do the 40-hour course before sending our folks to take the FAA test at a facility to get their license,” said Worcester.
“At the end of the day, drones enhance safety for our citizens and for our personnel responding,” said Werner.
“It’s not a 100 percent tool, but when you combine drones with a team of people who are trained, who use K-9’s in establishing a perimeter, as well as other traditional law enforcement methods, you end up with a much greater success rate in terms of finding people,” said Worcester.