New public safety drone in Berks is getting a workout [Opinion] – Reading Eagle

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A decade and a half ago, one of the suburban police departments in Berks County acquired cutting-edge video-editing technology that provided investigators the capability of brightening and sharpening dark, grainy footage.
The detective who was the steward of this nifty workstation would get a lot of work sent his way from criminal investigators with other departments. This was fine with him, as these investigators often shared information, including images captured from security camera footage of suspects and vehicles.
Investigators as late as the 2000s were often frustrated by the quality of the footage they got from store security cameras. That’s not so much of a problem today thanks to rapid advances in video technology and the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public and private spaces, including homes.
Being on the vanguard of technology as a public safety entity carries a burden: word gets around quickly that you have a tool that can solve a particular problem.
It’s a burden, however, that those who pour their time and energy into researching, acquiring and infusing the latest tools into their vocations are happy to bear.
Over the summer, Western Berks Fire Department used a state grant to buy a public safety drone. It had yet to be formally put into service, as members were still getting their FAA drone-pilot certification, when a responder for another agency who heard about the new tool by word of mouth called in September.
An elderly man with dementia had wandered from his home in Marion Township. Within 25 minutes of launch, the $12,000 drone found the man sitting in the middle of a cornfield. An expensive accessory — a thermal camera — identified a human under the cover of 6-foot-high plants.
Since then, the drone has assisted in searches of missing individuals in Berks, including a Windsor Township man (still missing as of Friday) and a Sinking Spring man (still considered missing as of Friday), as well as two missing-person searches in other countries, Western Berks Fire Commissioner Jared Renshaw told me.
Not long after the drone searched an area in Sinking Spring on Thursday for a man who went missing a couple of days earlier, Western Berks received another request from another police department to assist with someone who went missing. They were just about to launch it when they were told the person was found.
Renshaw invited me along with other local media representatives, police chiefs and elected leaders to the station on Oct. 29 for a demonstration of the drone’s capabilities.
It’s comparable to a consumer drone only in the way a model airplane is comparable to a Cessna Skyhawk.
The wind was blowing that day at 35 mph at 310 feet above Wernersville, but the Western Berks bird, guided by the pilot’s hand-held controller, was holding steady and transmitting crisp footage of the surrounding community. On a clear day, Renshaw explained, the powerful camera can tell you the color of the shirt someone is wearing on the patio of the Pagoda, 8 miles away.
The fire department was awarded a grant from the Office of State Fire Commissioner Annual Grant Program to buy the $12,599 drone. The separate thermal camera, which was crucial to finding the Marion Township resident, was purchased with a donation from a private entity.
The drone, which is the first of its kind in Berks, is available to be deployed to assist in emergencies that occur within Western Berks’ four-municipality area: Wernersville, Sinking Spring, South Heidelberg Township and Lower Heidelberg Township. That’s an area that includes the Blue Marsh Lake area and the surrounding state game land, forested slopes along South Mountain and the Norfolk Southern rail line.
Although Western Berks owns the drone, Renshaw said it’s available for emergencies that occur in the wider community.
“When it’s a life that’s in danger we don’t care about municipal lines and municipal boundaries, or even about county boundaries,” he said. “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do, and we look at it as if it’s a state grant-funded thing — there’s taxpayers all across the commonwealth that paid taxes to make this grant possible.”
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