By Andrew Schmertz
Bergen County’s emergency responders showed off their newest recruit — one who isn’t human.
The county’s Office of Emergency Management introduced drones — really unmanned aerial systems — which provide eyes into potentially dangerous situations.
“We believe this technology is a valuable tool in addressing dangerous situations and protecting the public. By providing us a more complete picture of an active scene and continuing to send up-to-date information in an emergency response, drones can help reduce the amount of time spent getting a situation under control,” said Bergen County Executive James Tedesco.
As part of the photo op, Sen. Cory Booker took the controls of the county drone in Mahwah. The senator has been pushing for more emergency responders to use drones and for Congress to encourage innovation.
“The first urgency for me is what you’re seeing the county executive be so innovative with and his team, which is we got to make sure we empower our first responders,” Booker said.
The county’s one drone pilot — Wyckoff police officer Kyle Ferreria, who is also a pilot of manned airplanes — demonstrated the drone on a clear sky day.
And Bergen County officials touted the early success of the program.
They used a drone to search for a homicide suspect in Midland Park and to find a missing person in Little Ferry.
While drones can only be flown in the line of sight of the pilot on the ground, officials expect the drones to help in forest fires, search for missing children and assist in arson investigations.
The drones are equipped with not just cameras, but sensors to determine other hazards.
“This will allow us to fly the drone down into hazardous material environments and take air samples and air monitoring and determine if we should send a human life down there or not,” said Bergen County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Lt. Matthew Tiedemann.
Included in the county’s fleet of drones, a $25,000 drone that comes with infrared cameras. That drone was donated by a company hoping to convince law enforcement nationwide to use it.
There are two smaller drones used for training.
However, an eye in the sky makes some nervous about their privacy. Something the county executive says they are addressing.
“When we first announced this, we got feedback from many different constituent groups and one of the things is that people’s privacy would be respected and I’m happy to say that part of our protocols is to ensure the public’s right to privacy is and continues to be protected,” Tedesco said.
At the end of the month, the FAA’s rules on who can fly drones commercially will be relaxed, allowing for non-pilots to fly them for these purposes. The county hopes this will lead to an expansion of its program.
How much fun was Booker’s first drone flight?
“I enjoyed that a lot. You’re talking to a guy who grew up with a joystick playing Atari in the 1980s. Nobody can check this, but I was the Bergen County champion, or that’s what I say,” he said.
County officials aren’t breaking out the cost of the drone program. But they say it’s obviously far less expensive than using manned aircraft. And more importantly, they say that it could save the lives of first responders who are in dangerous situations on the ground.