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Tenn. sheriff’s office unveils drone command vehicle

To date this year, the Hamilton County drone team has used the aircraft in around 670 missions for a total of nearly 500 miles flown


By Ellen Gerst
Chattanooga Times Free Press

HAMILTON COUNTY, Tenn. — A new drone command van unveiled last week is set to help Hamilton County first responders streamline search and rescue missions, crime scene investigations and other operations.

The vehicle is the first of its kind to be used by law enforcement in Tennessee, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Hamilton County has used drones since 2016, Sheriff Austin Garrett said. Eighteen pilots from the Sheriff’s Office and Hamilton County Emergency Management are now certified to fly them.

So far this year, the county’s drone team has used the aircraft in around 670 missions for a total of nearly 500 miles flown, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The new van, an enhanced sprinter the Sheriff’s Office said cost the county $168,100, will be shared by deputies and emergency responders. It’s an update from the previous vehicle the office used for drone command, a 2001 work van that was modified in-house. The updated van will also be used to help respond to calls from other agencies in the area, Garrett said in an interview last week.

“This is kind of seen as a toy by most people, but in this profession, there’s a lot of areas that we can’t get to on foot and in the right amount of time,” Garrett said.

A 15-foot mast on the van’s roof boosts the command center’s connection to drones and extends the drones’ range, Capt. Mark Hooper said.

Drones are most commonly used for search and rescue operations, or to find missing people, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies also use them to locate suspects, map crime or accident scenes, and monitor large crowds at events including Riverbend and the annual Ironman race.

“When you got a place that’s got 10,000 people in it, and we get a report that somebody’s down on the other side, we can fly that, get exactly where it’s at and see, OK, what’s going on,” Garrett said. “It saves a lot of time.”

He said the drones can also protect deputies from being harmed when going into a dangerous situation.

The updated van provides first responders with a safe and warm place where they can operate drones and monitor live feeds in any weather. The system can also live stream drone footage for other responders to watch even if they aren’t on scene, Hooper said.

In April 2020, the drones were used to assess damage from a tornado that moved through East Brainerd and other parts of Hamilton County. A few months later, the Sheriff’s Office said, deputies used drones to monitor protests against police brutality that brought thousands of people to the streets of Chattanooga.

“This is not about Big Brother ... this is in direct response to a mission,” Garrett said. “The law enforcement oversight on this program is tremendously different than the private sector, so it regulates at a great level where we can fly.”

Generally, the drones can’t fly directly over private property without good reason. But life-saving missions, including searches for missing people, can override those restrictions, Hooper said.

While most of the county’s drones are only equipped with cameras, some can also perform thermal imaging or drop small items like lifejackets to people in hard-to-reach places.

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