Drones Have Become a Valuable Tool for First Responders

Police and firefighters in Massachusetts have used drones to help find missing people and lost pets, scope out large fires, and map crash scenes

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For the owners of Toro, a 1-year-old Shiba Inu who was recently lost in the woods of Massachusetts, despair was setting in.

"It is tough, because you want to stay hopeful, but it is hard, too," said Matt Detora.

For 24 hours, the dog's owners looked for her after she ran away. They even made flyers, but she was nowhere to be found.

That is, until off-duty Harvard firefighter David Curran launched a drone. Armed with a thermal camera, the device found Toro in minutes, with Curran able to lead her owners right to her.

"Drone technology is new, it is a brand new technology. It is a new tool for us, and it is great to be in a community that allows us to expand our ability," Curran said.

On Monday, Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. awarded Curran with the District Attorney's Team Excellence and Merit Award, or TEAM Award, for his work that day in finding Toro.

"First responders show their care and commitment to the communities they serve in a variety of ways," Early said. "Firefighter Curran, a dog owner himself, knew the desperation someone feels when their pet — a member of their family — is missing. He used his knowledge of drones, a skill he uses for the town, and decided to act with his personal drone for one reason, to help someone in need. It is the hallmark of first responders."

Harvard recently received a grant to purchase a drone, and emergency officials say it has paid immediate dividends.

"The capabilities — one is fast deployment, we can get this up and running within two minutes," said Harvard Fire Chief Rick Sicard. "We have seen the usefulness of this tool for multiple different emergencies."

Sicard says the drone helped during a large brush fire in a nearby community last year, giving the command post real-time data.

"Used the drone all day long to help command, see the whole perimeter of the fire, and what the firefighter efforts, the wind was shifting so were able to see that all in real-time," he said. "You have the firefighter right there with incident command, you can see the screen, with the helicopter you don't usually get that communication, the helicopter sees what they say, but command can't see that."

A drone was also used to help find a missing Fairhaven woman earlier this month, and a missing hunter in Sudbury late last year. The Boston Fire Department deployed a drone to view a massive fire at Suffolk Downs last May, too.

"Operationally, we see our drone deployed at least once a week, sometimes more," Harvard Police Chief James Babu said Monday.

Babu says the drone also is able to fly in bad weather or low cloud-cover. The Harvard Police Department also using the drone to help map crash scenes.

"The technology of this for the cost, a fraction of the cost, of what the helicopter is," Babu said.

He says word is getting out, and Harvard's drone seems to be causing a buzz. Other departments have been calling Harvard as they look to launch their own drone programs.

Meanwhile, Toro is back home. Detora says they're watching her a little closer these days, thankful Curran was able to help when seconds mattered.

"It was a tough feeling, but it was definitely a good feeling at the end of it. We are just really appreciative that he was there," Detora said.

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