FRANKLIN – Simpson County may soon have a drone to enable quicker search and rescue operations.
Emergency management Director Robert Palmer on Tuesday delivered a joint proposal between his office, Simpson County Sheriff’s Office and Franklin-Simpson Fire Rescue that asks fiscal court to put aside $5,420 to establish a program that would give the three agencies access to a drone that could be used to make search and rescue operations more efficient.
“We’re going to ask you for a piece of equipment, but I want to not just have that piece of equipment, but we’re going to develop a comprehensive program around maintaining it, using it and that kind of stuff,” he said.
Palmer said he knows from experience the usefulness of drones. When a helicopter crashed in a cornfield in Simpson County on July 8, Palmer said he used his own personal drone to quickly find the downed aircraft.
“Had we had to walk through the field and find that, it probably would have taken half the day,” he said.
Palmer said he likely won’t use his own drone for search and rescue operations again because he’s not licensed under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule (Part 107).
“I’m really not supposed to be using my personal drone because I’m not a 107 licensed pilot at this time so I’m probably not going to do that anymore, but I’ve used it a couple of times and it’s showed out to be very useful,” he said.
Palmer’s plan calls for certifying two people from emergency management, two from fire rescue and two from the sheriff’s office to operate the drone.
While Palmer cited a number of applications a drone could have, he said his main interest would be in using one to find missing persons or people in danger.
The total cost of the drone system would be an estimated $4,370, though that includes three batteries, a protective case for the drone, a controller with a 5.5-inch 1080P screen, charging equipment and additional propellers, according to Palmer.
Additionally, the FAA certification test costs $175 per attempt, meaning an additional $1,050 to train six pilots, Palmer said.
The model in question, a DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual, would have a maximum speed of 45 mph, object avoidance sensors, 4K Ultra HD video and a thermal camera.
Palmer said Warren Fiscal Court and Franklin City Commission recently approved purchases of the same model of drone for Warren County Emergency Management and the Franklin Police Department, so regional coordination would be easy.
“They’re all on the exact same drone so if we were all on scene, a regional scene, the batteries are interchangeable, parts are interchangeable, pilots can fly the same because we all fly the same drone,” he said.
Simpson County Sheriff Jere Hopson said using a drone could help find people more quickly during an emergency, which could help cut down on costly overtime pay such operations usually entail.
“I’m a businessman when it comes down to looking at emergency services,” he said. “I hate to say this, but anytime I’m at a scene, I’m going to look at my personnel, thinking ‘How quick can we get this done? When can we get out of here?’ because it’s costing money to the county to take care of this service, but we want to provide the best service we can.”
He also said having a drone program would free the county from liability that could result from a citizen offering to use his or her drone to help with an operation.
“Bottom line, they screw up and wreck that drone, somebody gets hurt, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get hurt from a drone, but if it comes down and hits your car, you swerve, you hit a tree, don’t think they’re not going to come back and try to sue the county and basically what they’re going to find out is we had no authorization, we didn’t have a drone program. We asked somebody to put it up for us just to help us out.”
Though several magistrates and Simpson County Judge-Executive Mason Barnes spoke positively about the idea, fiscal court opted to hold off on voting to put the money aside for the drone program until the next meeting.
In another matter, fiscal court approved a city-county solid waste franchise agreement and a contract that combines city and county garbage collection operations.
Currently, Scott Waste has separate contracts for the county’s and city’s garbage collection.
The new contract was approved on second reading by fiscal court and, if approved on second reading by the city commission at its next meeting, will combine both operations under one contract that freezes rates for the next two fiscal years, with a rate change in the third year based on the consumer price index, Barnes said.
“The immediate thing is we get two years of no rate increase and then we get a third year where that increase is capped so that’s just a benefit to our residents that we’re going to keep that waste rate down,” he said.
From the perspective of county and city residents, the waste collection process should appear unchanged, Barnes said.
“The folks both inside and outside the city limits of Franklin will see absolutely no changes,” he said.
Monthly rates for trash pickup are $13.28 for county residents outside city limits and $12.80 for Franklin residents.