Elgin fire, police demonstrate new drones
The city of Elgin now owns two drones that can be used for a variety of purposes -- search and rescue, accident reconstruction, water tower inspections and more -- and they were introduced to the public at a forum Thursday night.
The fire department bought the two DJI brand drones late last year at a cost of about $12,000, including an $8,000 infrared camera that can spot body heat, Fire Chief Dave Schmidt said.
The drones so far have been used only for test flights and will be shared with the police department and any other city department that wants to use them, Schmidt said.
About 30 people attended the forum held by the fire and police departments at the Centre of Elgin. It included an outdoor flying demonstration.
Drones can be used in a variety of ways related to public safety, police and fire officials said.
After natural disasters like flooding and tornadoes, and in search and rescue operations, they can survey areas much faster than people on foot or on vehicles, and more cheaply than helicopters, which cost about $2,000 per hour.
They can take aerial photos for more efficient accident reconstructions, help determine which substance is burning during hazardous material fires, and even drop life jackets to people in trouble in water.
The Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act in Illinois limits drone law enforcement uses and requires, among other things, to obtain a search warrant signed by a judge if drones are used for surveillance.
Unlike hobby drones, those used for city purposes can be flown only by people who have taken a two-day class and been certified under the so-called "Part 107" of Federal Aviation Administration rules, officials said.
Schmidt and Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said they view drones as "another tool in the toolbox."
"They are an extension of our technology," Schmidt said. "They give us the ability to do our jobs in some cases more effectively and in some cases without putting people at risk."
Resident Lester Randall, who's had hobby drones for three years, praised the city for being proactive in communicating with residents about its drone initiative.
Melanie Carollo of Lake in the Hills, who's interning with the public works department, said the forum answered all her questions. "I feel like they covered most of people's fears."
The city council wasn't formally notified of the fire department's drone purchase and the council hasn't discussed implementing drone policies or regulations, or using drones for city purposes. City Manager Rick Kozal knew about the drone purchase, Schmidt said.
Schmidt and Swoboda said they plan to give a drone presentation to the council in the near future. Councilmembers Terry Gavin and Rose Martinez, who attended the forum, said they support using drones to help with city operations.
"I think this is a good thing," resident Kathy Wilczynski agreed. "I hope the city council will approve this."
In late 2015, the police department tested a $50,000 Lockheed Martin drone for possible purchase. That was vetoed by former City Manager Sean Stegall, who deemed it too expensive, Gavin said.
Swoboda said the department will evaluate whether to purchase its own drones.
"Prices have gotten much cheaper, and the applications have really increased to where there are just so many different ways we can use these drones," he said.