Vandalia police use drones in rescue mission

The call came in late in the evening. A gentleman with special needs was missing, and his family was concerned.

“He lived near his parent’s home, and he was known to walk through a densely wooded area to visit them a couple times a week,” remembered Chad Follick, Vandalia Fire Chief. “His cell phone was pinging in the middle of this 80-acre wooded area, and we needed to find him as quickly as possible.”

Ordinarily, a rescue mission like this would be require a large amount of resources.

“We would need a couple dozen guys, a few dogs, and probably a couple of days to effectively comb through the area,” Follick said. “Instead, we deployed our drone in the black of night and were able to recover the phone within an hour.”

While crews were able to locate his phone, they were not able to locate the individual they were looking for. He apparently dropped the phone during his walk, and was not in the area. Follick says the mission was still a success because it saved crews from hours of treacherous duty looking for someone who was not there.

The night rescues are possible because the drones have a thermal imaging camera that detects heat signatures. An individual walking through a wooded area in pitch-dark conditions would stick out “like a sore thumb” on the thermal imaging camera, Follick explained.

Stories like this one are happening more frequently these days, as the Vandalia Division of Fire has quickly developed a reputation in the region for their ability to utilize drone technology in emergency situations.

The drone unit became active in June of 2020, and has been used 17 times for a wide array of calls.

“Outside of missing person cases, we’ve found the drones very effective in hazmat situations,” Follick said. “With the drone, we’re able to get eyes on a chemical spill and determine an effective course of action before we put our firefighters on the scene.”

The thermal imaging camera allows firefighters see if tank or barrel is building up heat. An unstable solution will build up heat over a period of time before the increased pressure causes an explosion. While it may look no different to the naked eye, a barrel that’s building up heat will be obvious to the thermal imaging camera.

The thermal imaging technology also helps firefighters to determine how much fluid might be inside of a leaking tank.

“The portion of the tank that has liquid inside will have a different temperature than the empty portion,” Follick explained. “So we can see how full a tank is, and even get an idea of the rate at which the tank is leaking without having to put someone in harm’s way.”

Thermal imaging also helps on a fire scene, as it pinpoints the hot spots and can be used to more efficiently direct water.

One reason Vandalia’s drone program has been so successful is that an emphasis was placed on training. The division has five certified drone pilots on staff and Follick is working to get a sixth pilot trained.

“We have pilots who know and understand the capabilities of the drone and are able to maneuver it where it needs to go,” Follick said. “It takes a high degree of skill to be able to competently handle the drone, and our pilots take their responsibility very serious.”

Follick said the technology surrounding drones is rapidly evolving. He believes the increasing capabilities will serve to make the drone even more indispensable for his department.

With just over seven months of use to consider, Follick believes the drone program has been very successful.

“With just the ability to keep our guys a safe distance away when we investigate hazmat calls, I believe the drones have already paid for themselves,” he said.

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