Should search & rescue crews be allowed to operate drones?

Should search & rescue crews be allowed to operate drones? (Photo: Lisa Nico / KUTV)

(KUTV) Sheriff Jim Winder wants the Federal Aviation Administration to loosen restrictions on drone use. Right now, public safety departments like the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office cannot use drones for any reason. However, they can consult with drone operators who offer up the use of their device.

That’s exactly what Kris Krie did Saturday at Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“I approached them. I told them what I had, what I could do for them,” he said.

Krie was recreating with friends when he came across a search and rescue operation near Lisa Falls. Crews were searching for 17 year old James Wade, who was hiking near Lisa Falls with his family.

Crews had been searching for Wade since late Saturday morning. They were about to suspend the search for the night, when Krie offered up the use of his drone.

“They wanted me to put the drone where the helicopter couldn’t reach, because search and rescue knew right where to go,” Krie said of the search and rescue team. “He started pointing to the canyons and said can you get up there and give us a good visual? And I said yeah I can do that.”

Within minutes, Krie’s drone came across Wade’s body. Crews recovered his body that evening.

“I feel good knowing I was able to put a long search to an end,” Krie said.

Sheriff Jim Winder said Saturday’s incident is one example of how drones can be useful in search and rescue operations.

“The quick deployment of a drone can bring great relief to a victim. For instance, an individual that is stranded on a cliff and needs water delivered to them. That is an emergency situation. And a drone can very easily be deployed, drop the water, and the problem’s solved. Now, if that individual doesn’t get water, they become dehydrated. Their motor skills may get diminished.”

Winder wants the FAA to allow his agencies to use drones in cases of life-threatening search and rescue efforts, including searches for missing, endangered persons and in tandem with K-9 searches for suspects.

“These are obvious utilizations that are emergent that should be exempt from these federal regulations.”

He did not want to use drones for patrols or surveillance.

Current federal and state regulations prohibit public safety departments like SLCSO and UPD from using drones due to privacy laws.

Drones have also gained negative attention due to their interference in firefighting efforts.

Krie said the use of drones in cases of public safety concern are best left to experienced operators.

“Although the controllability and maneuverability of drones [has] gotten much easier, it is the knowledge of regulation and how to apply them to each operation while using good judgement to flying the drone safely, legally, efficiently, and effectively that separates an amateur from a professional.”

Winder wants to see FAA changes so that he can use reliable drones in a safe and legal manner.

“What I would prefer to do is do it legally and lawfully. But in this instance, it was a blessing where we had an individual who just showed up out of the blue, deployed this thing, and saved us hours and hours.”

He asked the public to share their opinions of drone use with the FAA

Until then, Winder said he will continue to use the public’s drones when it comes to matters of life or death.

“Right now, I guess if you’re driving by a search and rescue and you have a drone, we’ll use you!”

Krie and his brother are starting up a company called Areal Operations to use drones for positive impacts.

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