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Billings fire and police departments use drones, explain safety to council

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Posted at 1:58 AM, Apr 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-02 11:40:50-04

BILLINGS - The Billings Fire Department has four drones, while the city's police department has five.

Each can share their pilots with the other department so that the personnel can be used in their specialties of law enforcement and firefighting on an incident.

The Billings Fire Department helped the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office with a successful search and rescue of four people stuck on an island on the Yellowstone River last summer.

“They were within 150 feet,” said Captain Cameron Abell. “But since it was dark out, they weren't able to see them.

Abell piloted the drone that night in July and says without the aircraft and the thermal imaging, rescuers might have had to wait until morning.

The drone shortened the search time.

"You're flying overhead and it's pitch black and you see those two little white spots, three little white spots,” Abell said. “You're like, Oh man, alright, this is going to come to a successful end.' Now we were able to find them, and it's just a really good feeling."

Both the fire and police departments started using the drones in 2020.

“One of the things that's hard again to overstate is the importance that situational awareness can give to the incident commander,” said Battalion Chief Jason Lyon.

Lyon uses the drone shots to make decisions when on the scene of a fire or other emergency.

"We can't send people in to gather evidence, we could then maybe send in this aircraft to get better footage of where maybe the fire started," Lyon said. “Or at least what the conditions are inside prior to sending in a first responder."

Abell flew the drone for us and showed what the cameras can detect.

"And if I switch this to our infrared view, then we show up considerably brighter in the shadow of the building,” Abell said. “And so you can see that we're a hotter area than the grass below us."

Both departments told the city council about the successes of the program at a work session on Monday night.

“Situational awareness, officer safety, firefighter safety, community safety,” said police Lt. Shane Shelden. “It really boils down to that and people have been tremendously supportive."

Shelden also talked about privacy issues and the drone.

“If there's an incident and I have a reason to be there, then I have the opportunity to use a drone,” said Shelden. “Other than that, anything that gets into court has to be adhered to the search warrant requirements."

“The use of cases are really up to the imagination of the user," Lyon said. "Anytime you can decrease the amount of time we're in the field doing something, it makes it safer for us and then ultimately that makes it safer for the citizens we serve."