Bristol, TN taking steps to use drones in fire and police operations


BRISTOL, Tenn. - As drones become more widespread, so does their application. Now the City of Bristol, Tennessee is gearing up to put the new technology to use. The main focus? Emergency services.

The fire and police departments now have several ground pilots trained and certified. Bristol already owns and operates an unmanned aircraft system. Assistant fire chief and fire marshall Jack Spurgeon and Major Matt Austin with the police department are two of those who now know the ins and outs of how to control it.

"Looking at new technology to make sure we stay ahead of the curve, to look at what we can or can't do to serve the people of Bristol," Austin said.

The uses for the police would range from search and rescue to photographing evidence, and in some cases, potentially better crime scene photos than a person could take.

"The perspective of someone holding a camera and taking a picture, the perspective is at different angles and it's hard to be able to see," Austin said, "but a drone allows us to have an elevated platform that we can take pictures."

The fire department plans to use the drone to get 360-degree views of structure fires on difficult terrain, or rapidly spreading forest fires. It can even go inside a building and help find trapped fire victims.

"Sometimes we have unstable floors that we can't get on so we can take those and fly those into those areas and look for ourselves," Spurgeon said.

Already, the aircraft has been used for some limited arson and crime scene investigations but before it goes into regular use, city crews are working with the city attorney to establish policies.

"From an entrapment, to a fire scene, to an investigation, to potentially unsafe package that they want to look at before they bring out the robots," Spurgeon said, "numerous incidents such as that we'll have to write those policies for."

Major Austin said laws will dictate certain policies, including those involving privacy.

"A lot of the things we would need in using them would be a search warrant and those types of things," he said.

While sharing one drone now, both departments see the need for more and better equipment and are developing wish lists, and budget figures.

"Once you start getting into the infrared type cameras, that raises it to $15,000 to $20,000," Spurgeon said.

As it stands now, the city's restrictions regarding drones prevent them from getting flown over groups of people or over open water.

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