Notes From The Field: An Interview With Hamilton County Emergency Management’s UAS Team

We sat down with Shane Booker and Steve Haston from Hamilton County Indiana Emergency Management Agency to get an inside look at their drone program. Shane and Steve from Hamilton County EMA have built a massively successful UAS program by incorporating over 30 constituent agencies to share best practices and leverage shared resources, training and hardware. Hamilton County EMA’s UAS Program is a well oiled machine thanks to the efforts of Shane, Steve and the Drone Working Group of agencies within the county. Their lengthy list of accomplishments includes finding a fleeing armed robbery suspect, and flying in support of a Secret Service detail for the President. We spoke with Shane and Steve to get under the hood of their drone program, and see what makes their successes a reality. 

Tell us a little about yourself and Hamilton County’s drone program 

We are very fortunate in Hamilton County to have an emergency management director who has a vision for the use of UAV to enhance and strengthen our capabilities and improve our resiliency. Executive Director Shane Booker had been a police officer who advanced to become the Director for the Emergency Operations Center of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. Director Booker also holds a Masters in Homeland Security and has been an executive in private sector corporations.  Shane is an accomplished UAV pilot with many hours of flight time. I call Shane our Top Gun because he flies maneuvers successfully that I may have tried when I was younger but not any longer, I’m a little jealous.

Steve Haston is a retired firefighter after 28 years of service and is now a program coordinator for Hamilton County Emergency Management. Steve has been a licensed single engine private pilot since 1999 and a remote pilot since childhood. Haston coordinates the grant and UAV program. Having a private pilot license has proven valuable in developing and managing our UAV program. Knowledge of manned aviation and the NAS is very help when navigating sectional charts and various other FAA rules and regulations.

The Hamilton County Emergency Management UAV program operates under a county-wide Certificate of Authorization (COA) which allows us to provide drone support to any requesting agency within the boundaries of Hamilton County. Our drones are identified as UAV1801 and UAV1803 are kept with Booker and Haston at all times. Both drones are added to the (CAD) Computer Aided Dispatch system. Depending on the type of incident the dispatcher will automatically request drone support. Both drones respond  to provide ground and visual observer support as well as to have a backup drone if needed.

What types of operations are you using drones to support? 

As a county agency, we provide assistance to any public sector organization that requests our assistance. We have flown for police, fire, critical infrastructure, local government officials, city level special events, public relations event, and with the Civil Air Patrol.

We have even flown with the Secret Service during a POTUS visit to Fort Wayne. We were in the air conducting overwatch and streaming live video to the command post for over seven hours. This was an excellent opportunity to prove our capabilities and improve our inter-agency coordination.

Tell us about your drone working group, and how it’s helped advance your drone program and mutual aid capabilities. 

The Hamilton County Drone Working Group is a collaboration between multiple Hamilton County agencies. The group began meeting in March 2018 and has continued to grow to over 30 members. The group is open to anyone from the public sector who wants to participate. Currently, our group consists of police, fire, 911 Communications, critical infrastructure partners, private sector, and hospitals. 

The Drone Working Group meets monthly to discuss program development, policies, procedure, and safe operational practices. We usually start each meeting with a short training topic. Everybody has a chance to share their past month’s missions and top gun stories which often turn into a bragging session. Oh, did I mention HCEM flew for the POTUS – just saying.  After we talk about all of the critical program activities, we sometimes will go outside to the training grounds and fly team training missions.  During in climate weather, we fly toy drones inside to show off piloting skills.

Having an organized drone working group has been the catalyst for several significant milestones. Each agency still operates their own department’s UAV program, but we work closely together. We know every capability and aerial asset available, and we call on each other to assist during a mission. It is a force multiplier in several ways, backup drones, more manpower, extra batteries, different sensors, etc. Our elected officials, department heads, chiefs, among others recognize the drone group to be a valuable addition to county-wide services.

Each agency still operates their own department’s UAV program, but we work closely together. We know every capability and aerial asset available, and we call on each other to assist during a mission. It is a force multiplier in several ways, backup drones, more manpower, extra batteries, different sensors, etc.” 

What has been the greatest challenge in designing and implementing Hamilton County’s drone program?

As is the case in many startup initiatives, funding has been and continues to pose a challenge. Funding is a finite number attempting to satisfy a seemingly infinite number of programs. This is nothing new to Hamilton County Emergency Management.  We are continually evolving to provide the highest level of service to the community, emergency response partners, infrastructure partners, and citizens. Sustaining the program also requires an ongoing commitment to fund batteries, props, replacement parts on the maintenance schedule, training, etc. Because we approached the UAV program as a district-wide project (a grouping of counties in Central Indiana), we have been able to receive grant funding to launch the program (pun intended). 

What excites you most about drones in public safety? 

We have seen many advances in tools, equipment, processes, and procedures. Drones are a next step in public safety services, and there is more to come. Think about it; the Incident Commander wants to know what the crew sees from all sides at ground level and what the interior teams see. Why would the Incident Commander want to look at what is happening from above? Additionally, ground crews and interior crews offer a two-dimensional view of what is going on and what is happening. With the drone, we can deliver a three-dimensional view of what is happening in real-time. This greatly improves situational awareness and supports the common operating environment. Also, the drone sensors provide FLIR, zoom, LIDAR, etc.

“With the drone, we can deliver a three-dimensional view of what is happening in real-time. This greatly improves situational awareness and supports the common operating environment.” 

What Has been Hamilton County EMA’s biggest success so far? 

The most significant accomplishment to date, in my opinion, occurred following an armed robbery when the suspect fled the police at night, on foot, through a cornfield, and into wooded area.  On that evening, the temperatures were below freezing. HCEM was dispatched to assist in the search using FLIR. Following about two and a half hours of flights from various locations, we were dispatch to the near-by interstate due to sighting by state police. We quickly launched one of our DJI Matrice 210’s with an XT2 FLIR camera and began a search of the area. Within the first 60 seconds, we spotted a heat signature along the West side of the interstate that looked out of place for the area. As the drone hovered over the target at about 100’ trying to identify what we had, the target jumped up and started crossing the interstate to the East. We had the suspect! While the drone followed the suspect’s every move, we began providing directions to police command and directed them to a successful and peaceful takedown of the suspect.

What Does the Future Hold For Hamilton County EMA’s Drone Program?

We are operating in a very complex flight environment.  As our drone group grows, we add additional drones to our fleet, and missions continue to expand, we need to manage that growth. We need to be progressive and realistic in managing our growth. With that said, HCEM is working toward the very coveted waivers for beyond the visual line of sight and flight over people. While this is an ambitious pursuit, we believe it will be necessary to the continued success of the UAV program. 

 

BRENDAN STEWART

President

As the face of AeroVista Drone Academy, Brendan has almost a decade of unmanned aviation experience and over 2,500 flight hours to show for it. His expertise with drones is equaled only by his passion for building a community of world-class pilots across industries that believe in safety and efficiency above all else. Brendan holds his FAA Sport Pilot Certificate as well as his Remote Pilot Certificate, and his enthusiasm and charisma makes him the perfect Lead Flight Instructor.

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