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Emergency responders to have hi-tech eyes in the skies

Sheriff deputies and fire personnel will soon have access to an unmanned surveillance aircraft, greatly improving their search and rescue efforts in Ogle County.

Four members of the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, as well as two members each of the Mt. Morris and Rochelle Fire Departments, received training between Oct. 23 and 24 on operating a DJI Matrice 210 drone.

According to Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle, the drone will dramatically increase search and rescue operations involving missing children, the elderly, or even the occasional criminal, due to the drone utilizing both a standard camera and a FLIR thermal imaging camera.

With the thermal cam, the drone can fly 400 feet upwards and show heat sources around the landscape — particularly useful for search for missing persons in a given area.

“With this drone, a situation like what happened in Boone a few weeks ago could be easily prevented,” said VanVickle. “Nobody should spend a cold night in a corn field.”

VanVickle was referring to a situation where Babe Briggs, an elderly Boone resident, was reported missing Oct. 10, and was found alive in an unpicked corn field around 11 a.m. the following morning in critical condition.

“A drone with a thermal cam could have spotted her in no time,” he said.

VanVickle said helicopters have been utilized for searches, but the cost and availability of a helicopter doesn’t compare to the convenience of the drone.

“It’s not only less costly to get up and operate, it’s even less costly if a disaster strikes,” said VanVickle. “If by weather, malfunction, anything, and it goes down, it costs a lot less to replace a drone than a helicopter.”

In case of a house fire, VanVickle said the drone can quickly gain altitude and search in windows for any persons still in the house. It can also be used to survey damage after a disaster, like tornadoes, and send footage live to Springfield for evaluation and quicker response for disaster relief.

“Furthermore, no matter what situation we’re using it for, or where we’re at, a video downlink goes directly to several command posts,” he said.

He said the sheriff’s office has been looking into getting a drone for more than a year, but had concerns with the limited technology available - specifically, that being limited to only a standard cam or a thermal cam did not serve their goals efficiently.

“We waited for the right technology to be available, and now that it can fly and switch between both cams, we decided it was time to move forward,” said VanVickle.

The entire package cost around $20,000, but after a pair of radiological grants, the remaining balance was $6,000, paid from the drug fund. That cost includes training and certification.

As for the force, VanVickle says they’re excited about it, but will be even more so when the training is completed.

He said they’ve never had access to anything like this, and the capabilities will make life easier.

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