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Tech + Public Safety: Utilizing drone technology uncommon for a city of Cape's size

Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Dewayne McAlister, Cape Girardeau Fire Department captain paramedic, flies a drone in downtown Cape Girardeau. The City of Cape Girardeau has purchased two drones for use by the fire and police departments.

In 2016 when the Castor River flooded, the Cape Girardeau Fire Department provided a safer solution to search and rescue efforts: drones.

It was the first use of drones by the department, proposed by Fire Chief Rick Ennis. Using a drone, the department was able to create a safe travel route to rescue a victim; with it, they could see how the water was moving, the extent of the damage and potential hazards.

After this, Dewayne McAlister, Cape Girardeau Fire Department captain paramedic, headed a committee to purchase a drone for the City of Cape Girardeau. He became a licensed drone pilot in March 2017 through the FAA Part 107 course at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

Since, the fire and police departments use a HexH2O drone and a DJI Drone Inspire 1 with a FLIR Vue Pro thermal imaging camera to detect body heat during search and rescue missions. This drone can carry up to six pounds, giving them the ability to send life jackets, ropes or medical supplies to victims. With the drones, the fire department can also capture aerial footage of fires, to monitor how they are moving.

“We’ve had a great reception from citizens,” McAlister says. “They like the fact that we’re doing it. The idea of it is not for us to invade privacy or anybody’s personal space. It’s just to better assist in life safety and rescue.”

The Cape Girardeau Police Department also utilizes the drones, to get aerial views of outdoor crime scenes. Before the use of drones, the police department borrowed a fire truck from the fire department and climbed the extended ladder with a camera to get an aerial view. Drones have made this job much more efficient, high-quality and safe, says Police Chief Wes Blair.

“We can see so much more from the air and cover a lot more ground,” Blair says. “It also increases the safety of our officers — we can send drones into places of surveillance if it’s barricaded, where we wouldn’t necessarily want to send an officer.”

The department also uses drones for search and rescue missions, especially in wooded areas or in larger fields. As drone battery life improves with the advancement of technology, Blair envisions a future where drones could be used in pursuits, to protect the lives of officers and the general public.

It’s a remarkable capability for a city this size; Mcalister says at the conferences he has attended, Cape Girardeau is one of the smaller municipalities whose fire and police departments are utilizing drones. He names Annaheim, California; Daytona Beach, Florida; and Seattle as other cities utilizing drone capabilities.

In January, the fire department plans to train five more people to become drone-certified.

“It’s a privilege that our city council and our city manager and mayor and the fire chief and the police chief were all very proactive and willing to jump into something like this,” McAlister says. “Most of the towns our size are not even considering it.”