MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Montgomery County Sheriff has a new eye in the sky thanks to a holiday gift from the Alzheimer's and Autism Outreach Group.
AOG donated a search and rescue drone, a standard kit modified with specialized thermal imaging technology, to the sheriff's office. Though the drone can be used in a number of emergency response situations, AOG's mission is to help those suffering from conditions that can cause individuals to leave home unable to find their way back.
"This is another tool in our arsenal that will allow us to bring loved ones home," Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said.
AOG gifted its first Inspire Drone to the Dallas County Sheriff's office in July 2016 and hopes to eventually outfit more sheriff's offices around the state.
For Executive Director Oscar Wayne Calloway, AOG's mission is personal. His family founded the group after his grandmother and mother both suffered from Alzheimer's.
"The reason we even started was because my mom had Alzheimer's, and she had a tendency to wander," Calloway said. "Thank goodness for good neighbors, they always brought her home."
AOG has previously worked with personal tracking wristbands, but Calloway said families often didn't realize they needed the wristband until it was too late.
"We're expanding our search capabilities with these resources," Lt. Robert Irsik, who received drone training from the Auburn Aviation group, said. "The trackers can be a time consuming process, and they only gets us so close. In the county, we've got a lot of terrain that is not navigable and difficult to search."
Use of drones is growing with first responder agencies, which can use the technology to track traffic patterns or large crowds. Fire departments can use thermal imaging to identify hot spots in buildings or scope out potential hazardous materials before sending a firefighter in.
According to an April 2017 study conducted at Bard College, at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency units in the country have acquired drones. At the time of the report, Alabama had 20 publicly reported public safety drones, falling only behind Texas and California in the country.
The Selma Police Department has four drones, and the aircraft were used at commemoration events that were part of the recent 51st anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. The Prattville police and fire departments have had drones in the inventory since 2015.
In 2016, the Autauga County Emergency Management Agency deployed its drone to search a swampy area along Autauga Creek after an elderly man went missing.
"We were able to clear that area in a space of less than 5 minutes with the drone," said Ernie Baggett, EMA director. "It would have taken several hours for people on the ground to conduct a grid search in a very difficult, and hazardous, environment."
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.
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