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Ohio first responders explore drone programs

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Law enforcement departments across the state are learning how to get drone programs off the ground.

At one thousand feet or higher, police already have eyes in the sky using helicopters. Now, if departments are successful in establishing drone projects, the unmanned aircraft will be whizzing 400 feet above neighborhoods.

"There will be an unmanned aircraft of some type in every police car, in every fire truck, at least in the country," said Donald Shinnamon, a businessman for Canada-based Aeryon Labs Inc.

Shinnamon has nearly four decades of experience in law enforcement. He oversaw the aviation committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police where he helped craft a recommended drone policy for police departments.

Last week, Shinnamon coached Ohio first responders from fire and police departments on ways to launch programs in their communities.

"The applications for public safety are tremendous," he said.

Shinnamon says drones allow investigators to clear traffic crashes sooner. The quadcopters can take measurements and precisely document scenes in detail. Tow trucks can haul mangled wreckage away so traffic flow can be restored.

A first responder no longer has take a pair of binoculars and cautiously approach an overturned tanker to read a placard. Instead, a drone can zoom in to read the chemical label and capture the spill from every angle to alert emergency personnel about what resources are needed.

"It puts a machine in harm's way instead of a human being," said Wes Spradlin, a Columbus firefighter, who is in charge of heavy rescue and part of the HAZMAT team. He was in attendance at the meeting held nearly a week ago at the Columbus Police Academy.

The view from above can also help firefighters knock down a large home or business engulfed in flames.

Last May, a massive recycling plant fire consumed a warehouse. ABC 6 helped firefighters by flying a battalion chief up in the Sky 6 helicopter to get a different vantage point and develop a fire attack plan.

"We go into situations not knowing anything. The more information, the faster we can get it, the more lives can be saved and the less danger we can put ourselves into," Spradlin said.

Ohio is one of 15 states with pending legislation on law enforcement using drones. Seven states already have laws in place, according to Shinnamon.

"What we don't want is entire streets, neighborhoods or really cities at this point that can be under the watchful eye of government and that is our big fear," Gary Daniels, a lobbyist for American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The ACLU has already worked with lawmakers to draft legislation in Ohio. Senate Bill 251 sets limits on how drones would be used by law enforcement.

Drones could be used to document crime scenes and traffic crashes. They could also be used in searches for missing persons.

No criminal evidence can be gathered without a search warrant. Drones could be used to view people's homes without a warrant only in cases where there are threats of death or serious injury.

No weapons would be allowed to be mounted on the unmanned aircraft.

If the bill passes, departments will be required to report drones' use annually to the attorney general.

Communities can add additional requirements for law enforcement to use drones by passing ordinances or policies.

"Transparency is key," Shinnamon said.

He said the proposed restrictions are reasonable.

"We don't want our privacy invaded anymore than anyone else does," Shinnamon said.

Approximately 30 law enforcement agencies across the country already have programs in place, he said.

Michigan State Police purchased a drone from Aeryon a year ago for $160,000 using a federal Homeland Security grant. The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on troopers flying the drone statewide.

The troopers have to be FAA certified and a minimum of two people are required to fly the drones - one acting as pilot and the other as an observer. The drone always has to remain within the line of sight.

In Columbus, budget managers were alongside first responders learning about starting a program. It's unclear which departments in Central Ohio will invest in unmanned aircraft. It's still early.

In the meantime, first responders hope the program garners support.

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"Our job is dangerous enough," Spradlin said. "If we can get something to do that, then that helps a lot."

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