In 2015, Franklin County Emergency Management took to the skies by launching an Unmanned Aerial Program.  A difficult search for a missing person reinforced feelings by Agency leaders that the need for aerial intelligence was imperative for some missions conducted by the Agency.  Utilizing funding from the Franklin County Safety Committee as a match for an United States Department of Agriculture vehicle grant, the Agency was able to purchase our first unmanned remote-controlled aircraft.  The aircraft would be assigned to the new vehicle as part of a rapid response command package, allowing Agency leaders to quickly get to an emergency scene and begin gathering intelligence and mitigating the incident.  The launch of this program made the Agency the ONLY local public safety entity south of I-64 to have an unmanned aerial program. 

In its infancy, the program faced struggle as we determined that launching such a resource was not as simple as buying an RC quadcopter and putting in the air over an incident scene.  Unmanned aerial systes were new to the public safety world and were strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.  There was not an abundance of information about how to properly obtain the permissions needed to legally fly our aircraft.  Contact with the FAA regarding our program was made, and after several weeks of applications and waivers, the FAA granted Franklin County Emergency Management Agency with a Certificate of Authorization of Waiver (COA) under Part 333, allowing us to operate our unmanned aerial vehicle in the National Airspace with only minor restrictions.  The COA gave agency leadership the ability to create our own training program, specific to our needs and capabilities, ensuring that our pilots were trained appropriately for the missions they would be flying.

The next hurdle for the program came when it was determined that the County’s blanket liability insurance would only cover part of the necessary liabilities of operating an unmanned aircraft.  Agency leadership spent months working directly with Bliss McKnight, the County’s primary insurance provider, to explain what we would be utilizing the unmanned aircraft system for.  A policy document was created by Agency leaders and reviewed in its entirety by underwriters for the insurance company.  The proactive stance from Agency leadership to ensure that civil liabilities were protected and the UAS was operated as safely as possible led to a successful agreement with the insurance company.  We were later told by Bliss McKnight that the extent of care and consideration in the Agency’s policy manual led to an unprecedented unlimited civil liability coverage package. By the end of 2016, we were fully operational, but had flown only four public safety missions.

In 2018, the program suffered a setback when the Agency’s UAS became damaged during a mission.  While obtaining photographs for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for reconstruction and investigation of a fatal motorcycle crash, the DJI Inspire 1 experienced a battery failure and fell from an altitude of approximately 350 feet.  No one was injured in the incident, and no additional property damage occurred, but the aircraft suffered significant damage and was deemed a total loss by the Agency.  The good news…the Agency had just purchased and taken delivery of its’ second unmanned aerial system utilizing funding from the Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness Grant.  This aircraft, a DJI Matrice 200, is equipped with a special thermal imaging system that allows operators to see heat signatures from several hundred feet away.  This feature further increased the capabilities of the program, allowing the aircraft to operate at night with a higher level of safety and confidence.  The system also allows operators to safely hover above incident scenes, or search large areas, and broadcast the images obtained by the aircraft back to the command post for multiple responders to view. 

As 2019 comes to a close, the Agency’s Unmanned Aerial Program is continuing to grow and improve.  The Agency again increased capabilities by purchasing additional batteries and a mobile charging station for the UAS.  This purchase allows operators to more rapidly and efficiently charge the aircraft and controller batteries while flying missions, allowing for nearly around the clock operation if necessary.  An additional remote controller was also purchased, allowing the co-pilot or another responder to view and manipulate the aircrafts camera while the pilot focuses on flying the aircraft.  Both of these purchases were made using grant funding.  We now have three trained pilots and are working to train three additional staff members to operate the UAS.  FCEMA has assisted several other entities kick start UAS programs in the past 4 years, including Cook County Department of Homeland Secutiy & Emergency Management and Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.  By providing administrative and technical advice, we hope to ensure that other jurisdictions can have programs that are as successful as ours has been.   Today,  Agency staff stand ready to provide immediate support to emergency personnel responding to incidents such as: building fires, wild fires, searches for missing/fleeing persons, hazardous materials incidents, natural or manmade disasters, search/arrest warrant execution, law enforcement investigations, and any other incident that may require aerial intelligence.