PACIFIC COUNTY — Law enforcement agencies in our large coastal county are rapidly ramping up use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, to assist citizens in need and provide a safer working environment for officers.

Recently, the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and Shoalwater Bay Police Department (SWBPD) both ventured into the use of UAVs. Each has a highly trained UAV pilot.

In partnership with Westport-based South Beach Regional Fire Authority, the agencies train together to stay fresh with evolving technology and help pilots build operational expertise. They meet up several times a year, and each pilot independently practices several times a month.

It started with one

The SWBPD purchased its first UAV in July 2019, designed to help with search and rescue and perform water rescues. The UAV can fly out into the surf or any other body of water and drop an inflatable floatation device to save a drowning victim’s life, along with keeping an eye on victims until a specialized rescue team can arrive, such as a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

“It’s waterproof, and you can actually fly it in water. It’s really weird to do it, because [the common perception is that] drones don’t go in the water,” SWBPD Pilot and Sgt. Chris Boggs said. We [now] have two other [drones] — a [DJI] Mavic Pro and then a [DJI] Mavic Dual Enterprise, which has a FLIR [forward-looking infrared].”

One of the drones’ neatest features is their ability to detect and be notified about nearby aircraft. Boggs said the notification can be a bit pesky because it sometimes detects planes over 100 miles away, but he likes the security and added level of protection it offers, including when to land the drone.

Besides three operational UAVs, the agency also has a trainer UAV that is used for practice and instruction. In addition to officer training, SWBPD Chief Jim Bergstrom said he hopes to eventually get some citizens on board, too.

“We actually have four drones [including] the small trainer one [for training and practicing] helping get them off the ground, switching directions and all that stuff. That’s how we start people out on them, so when they start being proficient with that, we move them up.” Chief Bergstrom said. “At some point, I [plan] to invite citizens in to become part of the team.”

“Someone who’s out there and they have the time and can train more. So when there’s a need, we can call them in and say, ‘Hey, can you come help us out.’ I might be able to get it out of the case, but beyond that point, I’m not too good,” Bergstrom said about the modern technology.

The agency’s splash drone was purchased through the Shoalwater Bay Emergency Management Department and a donation from the Shoalwater Bay Casino. The DJI Mavic Pro was funded with a donation from the casino, and the DJI Mavic Dual Enterprise was also bought via the emergency management department.

Abilities are nearly endless

UAVs offer law enforcement agencies one thing that is almost priceless and that is its unparalleled safety for officers and responders. Agencies across the country have now turned to the devices for use during situations that would have sometimes put officers and responders in harm’s way in unknown danger — such as shootings, tense standoffs with armed individuals, and other high-risk conditions. They also give officers and other emergency agencies the ability to switch to rescue-based uses.

“They can basically go places we can’t,” Boggs said. “If we have someone lost in the woods up here, we can send it out and go where we can’t, and it’s way cheaper than a helicopter. A helicopter can do the same thing, but you are looking at $5,000 an hour compared to, [for instance], our FLIR [UAV] the whole package was $3,500.”

Not only are helicopters more expensive, but they are also often at least 30 minutes away. The closest rescue helicopter, for example, is stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria that has a flight time of upwards of 25 minutes to the northern section of Pacific County. The next closest rescue helicopters are at Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

In the case of a UAV, Boggs can have one airborne in a matter of minutes in the case of the splash UAV, and less than a minute with the newer DJI UAVs. He credits this speed to continual training and practice but also admits he’s got the system down because “minutes matter.”

Helps with tactics and awareness

On the tactical side of the spectrum, UAVs give officers the ability to get wide-view aerial imaging of scenes that provides officers with and command staff direct feedback on suspects and real-time situations. They can also take video and pictures of scenes for later scene recreation for investigations. The abilities, according to Bergstrom and Boggs, are nearly limitless.

“Number one, they provide safety,” Boggs said. “You can shoot a drone and replace it, but you cannot replace a human being. It’s [also] awareness, so when we go into a situation, we know beforehand.”

“We can get a look at terrain to know what [we’re] going to be dealing with and what advantages that [we] might have that [we] wouldn’t have without the drone up there,” Bergstrom added about the ability to have an eye in the sky, keeping his officers safe in all situations.

Part of SWBPD’s setup for the UAV program provides Bergstrom and his agency the ability to see a live feed from the UAV at the police department’s main office. The feed is updated in real-time to a large TV monitor that gives Bergstrom the ability to make split-second tactical decisions if necessary or other responders can make a game plan.

Another level of use for UAVs and SWBPD’s fleet is the ability to survey natural disasters to help resources get to where they need to be — whether it be a landslide that cuts off State Route 105, a roadway washing out, or, as was the case last year, a wildfire nearby. Boggs even used the UAV to survey the Shoalwater Bay ocean berm that sustained significant damage during king tides and a strong storm in December 2020.

PSCO adds another UAV

The PCSO recently added a newer, more high-tech UAV to its fleet that expands the department’s aerial capabilities. The UAV has the same ability as the ones already in service with the SWBPD but has a stronger camera, longer range, and more high-tech software that can assist with fire investigations.

The sheriff’s office UAV pilot, Sgt. Jon Ashley, has already put it into use at a recent fire in Raymond that destroyed a home in the Riverview area on Weaver Avenue. According to Sheriff Robin Souvenir, the agency will also be using it for many more roles as needs arise.

“The primary purpose for the UAS is for situation awareness when executing search warrants acquired through the legal systems by our deputies and officers,” Souvenir said. “The device gives law enforcement the ability to have oversight of the search warrants execution and with this information makes these high-risk operations safer for the deputies, officers, and our communities. The UAS information can be used for training purposes after the incidents to improve our responses in the future.”

“The UAS can also be used for several other tasks [and] has an infrared camera and will be very useful for fire investigation. The UAS can find hot spots at the scene and can help determine the initial start location of the fire. It can also map crime scenes for later reconstruction if necessary. This same time on higher-profile cases that need detailed reconstruction,” he added.

UAS is an alternate acronym for drone and stands for Unmanned Aircraft System.

Perception of UAVs misleading

When citizens hear the word “drone,” some have concerns that a hovering device might spy on them and invade their privacy. However, according to Bergstrom and Boggs, that is not the case, with both noting the UAVs have specific purposes and have protocols in place to make sure they aren’t misused. All agencies have similar policies in place for UAVs.

“We are trying to limit the public ease of us spying on them because it doesn’t happen,” Boggs said. “…I know that’s the biggest thing — citizens are, ‘Oh my god, there’s drones in the air, they’re all wanting to see everything.’ No, it’s not that. We have specific guidelines in our policies to avoid that, and most of the time we are on a scene, we are only getting what we need to get and trying to not infringe on anybody’s privacy rights.”

According to officers, the Shoalwater Bay area has been supportive of SWBPD’s UAV program and the abilities they represent in terms of added safety. Bergstrom credits this public buy-in to the support of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, casino, and private citizens. He is also proud of his department and its relationship with the UAV programs at neighboring agencies.

“I am totally supportive of this program because they can meet so many future needs, [some] we don’t even know what yet,” Bergstrom said. “The teamwork between us, the county, and [SBRFA] all coming together for basically a common goal, [which] is officer safety and public safety [has been amazing].”

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