Serving the skies: Tri-State team of first responders using drones to save lives

The firefighters and police officers who are part of the group are now trained to take their job to new heights.
Published: Nov. 15, 2021 at 10:28 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - First responders from multiple Tri-State agencies have formed a drone team to help in emergency situations.

The group, UAS 500, was first launched two years ago. It started small with Woodlawn Fire and Blue Ash Police and has continued to grow into a team of 20 to 25 people.

“UAS is ‘unmanned aircraft systems,’ and 500 is just the team identifier,” Katie Thielmeyer, the team’s project manager and a Woodlawn firefighter, said. “Life and death is exactly what we deal with, and drones have proven, not just with our team, but across the entire world, they’re being used, and they’ve proven to change the outcome.”

Thielmeyer said UAS 500 team members have completed the proper training and certification to become drone pilots. They now voluntarily serve the Tri-State, which means any agency can request their assistance at an active scene.

“As a fire chief, police chief, anybody running any type of emergency, our biggest thing is situational awareness,” Amos Johnson, Woodlawn’s fire chief and a member of the team, said. “We need to figure out what’s going on as quickly as possible.”

Between the different involved departments and civilian partners, the team currently has access to 12 drones. They are most often called to help agencies within Hamilton County, but they travel to neighboring communities too.

Johnson said the drones are a huge help when it comes to fighting fires, specifically tackling hot spots.

“[Using the drone] in my vehicle, I can see my guys on the roof. I can see what’s going on behind the building. I can see all the fire trucks that are coming in, and then all of the citizens and things that are going on around as well,” Johnson said. “We can put the drone up with thermal capabilities, and it can point straight to wherever the hot spots are at. We can direct our firefighters to those points to put that fire out, so it cuts our overhaul time in half almost.”

The drones are connected to a live stream, which gives crews on the ground a bird’s eye view that can even be accessed by dispatchers.

“Somebody at a command center, or off-scene, or even on scene at another part of the scene, can log onto the website and see what we’re seeing,” Thielmeyer said.

The drones have also proven to be useful in search and rescue situations. Thielmeyer said the aerial view helped them track down two missing children.

“Actually located the girls in a creekbed right before dark,” she said. “Probably wouldn’t have found them if it was 10 minutes later. Huge success story for the team. Probably saved those girls’ lives, and so that was a big win and a really interesting situation for us.”

Public funding and grants can be difficult to find, according to Thielmeyer and Johnson, so right now the team is running on donations and money pulled from their own pockets.

Events, like a benefit ride hosted by 859 Board Up, a victim and disaster assistance company, keep them going too.

“We had a huge outpouring from the community with donations. It was really awesome, so we were able to raise $5,000,” Leah Hanlon, the victim assistance coordinator for 859 Board Up, said.

Despite how expensive the equipment can be, the UAS 500 team is not planning on slowing down anytime soon.

“We don’t always have a win. We don’t always find the person, ya know? But just showing up and doing what we can to help, it’s an honor for me to be a part of it,” Thielmeyer said. “Everybody’s really embraced this, and we get a lot of really good feedback, and it feels really good.”

Thielmeyer said they are always looking for additional ways to bring in funding.

On top of Woodlawn Fire and Blue Ash Police, experts from the University of Cincinnati, Flamingo Air and other emergency agencies help the team.

Anyone interested in keeping up with the team can follow UAS 500 on Facebook.

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