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Tri-state first responder team uses drones to save lives

CINCINNATI (WXIX) – First responders from several agencies across the tri-state 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 20-25 people.

“UASs are ‘unmanned aircraft systems’, and 500 is just the team identifier,” said Katie Thielmeyer, team project leader and Woodlawn firefighter. “Life and death is exactly what we’re dealing with, and drones have proven, not only with our team but around the world, that they are used and that they have proven to change the outcome. . “

Thielmeyer said members of the UAS 500 team have completed the appropriate training and certification to become drone pilots. They now serve all three states on a voluntary basis, meaning any agency can ask for their help in an active arena.

“As a fire chief, police chief, anyone who handles any type of emergency, our greatest thing is situational awareness,” said Amos Johnson, Woodlawn Fire Chief and member of the team. “We need to understand what’s going on as quickly as possible. “

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

Johnson said drones are a big help when it comes to fighting fires, especially dealing with 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 coming in and then all the citizens and things going on as well, ”Johnson said. “We can set up the drone with thermal capabilities and it can point directly to where the hot spots are. We can direct our firefighters to these points to put out this fire, which almost halves our overhaul time. “

The drones are connected to a live stream, giving ground crews a bird’s-eye view that even dispatchers can access.

“Someone in a command center, or offstage, or even onstage at another part of the stage, can log on to the website and see what we’re seeing,” Thielmeyer said.

Drones have also proven useful in search and rescue situations. Thielmeyer said the aerial view helped them locate two missing children.

“I actually located the girls in a stream just before dark,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have found them if it was 10 minutes later. A great success for the team. Probably saved the lives of these girls, so it was a big win and a really interesting situation for us.

According to Thielmeyer and Johnson, public funding and grants can be hard to come by, so right now the team is operating with donations and money drawn from their own pockets.

Events, such as a fundraising race organized by 859 Boarding, a victim and disaster assistance company, also keeps them going.

“We have had a huge wave of donations from the community. It was really great, so we were able to raise $ 5,000, ”said Leah Hanlon, Victim Assistance Coordinator for 859 Board Up.

Despite the high cost of equipment, the UAS 500 team doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

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

Thielmeyer said they are still looking for additional ways to provide funding.

In addition to the Woodlawn Fire and Blue Ash Police, experts from the University of Cincinnati, Flamingo Air and other emergency agencies are helping the team.

Anyone interested in following the team can follow UAS 500 on Facebook.

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