By Rachel Adams-Heard
Rockbridge County is taking a step back before deciding whether to include unmanned aerial vehicles—better known as drones—in its emergency response program.
Earlier this month, the county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to wait a year before deciding whether to buy a drone that could be used to search for missing or lost people.
It was the second time this year the supervisors had considered buying an emergency response drone. They took up the topic in May and June, ultimately deciding to defer a decision until this fall.
The plan the supervisors shelved included recording footage of forest or other open land. Members of a review committee had raised concerns that all those recordings would be considered public information and subject to release to anyone.
Rockbridge County Director of Fire and EMS Brandon Mitchell said the decision to wait a year before deciding whether to purchase a drone gives the county time to learn more about unmanned aerial vehicles.
“It’s our job to give the board of supervisors all the information we can possibly give the—both negative and positive—so they can make an informed decision,” said Mitchell.
Funding for an emergency response drone would come from a grant from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which would match county funding up to $7,500.
In the Rockbridge area, the biggest need for aerial footage comes when hunters, hikers and fishers are late returning home, said Rockbridge County Sheriff Chris Blalock. An emergency response drone—typically only a couple of feet wide—would replace search and rescue helicopters that need a pilot and someone to record video footage.
“You could fly a stretch of river pretty quickly,” Blalock said.
County resident Stan Ponce doesn’t worry much about privacy concerns in the use of drones to find lost hikers and hunters. Ponce lives with his wife and son on House Mountain. He doesn’t hear of many lost hikers on the trail near his home, but he thinks drones could improve search missions in other popular hiking spots in the area.
“With the terrain we have around here, you would definitely think that something like that would be of benefit,” Ponce said.
The supervisors’ Oct. 14 decision comes during a two-year moratorium imposed by the General Assembly on the use of drones by law enforcement except for emergencies and training exercises. The legislation, sponsored by local Del. Ben Cline, was signed into law April 2013 and is effective until July 1, 2015.
“I think that moratorium was so everyone could take their time and not jump in and use [drones] too quickly,” said Blalock.
Blalock served on the committee that considered the county’s need for an emergency response drone. He said the committee ultimately decided that in the case of an emergency, the county could borrow a drone from Virginia Tech, which is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct drone research.
Blalock also recommended that an emergency response drone be the responsibility of county fire and rescue, rather than the sheriff’s office as was originally discussed.
If an emergency response drone is ultimately purchased, Mitchell said, his staff will receive comprehensive training.
“We’re making sure we’re never violating people’s rights,” he said.
Walkers Creek District Supervisor Buster Lewis chided his fellow supervisors for what he called a missed opportunity to provide the Rockbridge area with better resources.
“This is the second time we’ve gotten cold feet on the issue,” said Lewis. “From my point of view, it’s a wonderful opportunity to provide a greater service to the community in terms of search and rescue.”
Lewis said he expects the supervisors to take the issue up in about October 2015.