YORK COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — Firefighting and law enforcement can be dangerous jobs, but increasingly over the past few years, crews on the ground are getting help from above.
In York County, a small fleet of drones helps with surveillance, rescue, night searches and even HAZMAT situations.
“It was about February, March of 2016 that we started,” said Deputy Fire Chief Chris Sadler. “There were not many public safety agencies in the country that were even entertaining the use of drones.”
So, Sadler and his team of two drones and one deputy had to become, as he likes to call it, the tip of the spear.
“Look at where we are now, what we’re doing with drones,” Sadler said. “To keep from having to put a firefighter or law enforcement person in harm’s way is remarkable.”
Today, York County’s joint sheriff’s office-fire department team operates a trailer full of drones with a variety of uses: there are small drones that can fly indoors, bigger drones that can drop equipment and drones with infrared cameras.
“We have reasons for drones exclusively for fire reasons and exclusively for law enforcement reasons and being a team together, we can use the Fire/EMS personnel on the team for law enforcement reasons, flying the drone and having different assignments like that, and the same can be said for a fire scene, law enforcement can go out and assist with them, so it’s a great partnership,” said Sergeant Brandon Williams, with the York County Sheriff’s Office.
When the roof of Thomas Nelson Community College collapsed earlier this year, no one had to take on the risky job of going in to assess the damage and investigate the cause.
“We were able to bring in one of our drones and fly over and inside of the building and fly right up to a lot of the areas that you needed to see,” Sadler said.
As in that situation in Hampton, localities from all over the commonwealth can call on York County’s drone team, which is a state asset and largely funded by state and federal grants, Sadler said.
The team is known well beyond the borders of Virginia, though.
“I do some teaching across the country, some public safety presentations. I’ve been to Calirfornia, Colorado, Texas, Boston, Chicago,” said Sadler. “It’s because of what we have done in the county and what we’ve learned that we’re able to help other entities around the country.”
As Sadler prepared to retire, he’s confident what he’s built will continue to soar.
“Anything that I do, I want it to be done as best as it can be done,” he said. “It’s fine tuning a lot of what we’re doing to make us just that much better.”