County denies grant request for emergency management drones

Williamson County commissioners struck down a request March 18 from the Office of Emergency Management to apply for grant funds to purchase two unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for hazard assessment uses.

TheOEM was requesting grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for items, including$44,500for the UAVs as well as accessories, training and Federal Aviation Administration licensing costs. The funding will bedistributed by the Capital Area Council of Governments.

The court voted unanimously to approve the grant requestssubmitted to CAPCOG except for the UAVs.

Other items requested included upgraded weather stations and a utility task vehicle to carry equipment, personnel and victims from accident or disaster sites.

This tool will provide us a huge advantage, OEM Coordinator Jarred Thomas said about the UAVs. Emergency Management would own [them]. Its not law enforcement specific, its not hazmat specific, its for any hazard.

Thomas said the UAVs would primarily be used for fire, flood, hostage and damage assessment situations.

Law enforcement could use UAVs to clear all sides of a building and check around hallways and corners in hostage situations, Thomas said. Fire departments could also use a thermal camera attached to a UAV for search-and-rescue missions or to locate hot spots after a structure fire.

A UAV would also provide a safer way to assess facilities for vulnerability or damage, such as after a storm, Thomas said.

If the duty is dangerous, dull or dirty, thats what the drone is for, he said.

The UAVs have a 17-minute flight time and a homing system, which would lead the device back to a base before its battery died, Thomas said.

The UAVs, priced at $5,800 each, would save the cost and time of renting or requesting a helicopter from other counties or the National Guard for similar uses, he said.

Commissioner Lisa Birkman spoke in opposition to the request.

There are people I know who are going to be fairly opposed to this, she said. They will feel like its an infringement on civil liberties.

County Judge Dan Gattis said he applauded Thomas bringing the request to court.

I can see this being useful, he said. I can see it saving lives, but if Im going to support it, Id like a usage policy to restrict it.

Thomas offered to create a usage policy to bring back to the court at a later date and requested the court approve the grant proposal for submission to CAPCOG.

We have until November to deny or accept funds, Thomas said. If its passed through to Homeland Security for potential funding, Id like to take this time between now and November to provide a comprehensive usage policy.

Commissioners Cynthia Long and Valerie Covey said they would like to see more information about UAVs, including use and costs to the county.

It sounds like this needs a lot of vetting [on] how it might be used, Long said. My suggestion is [to] get that discussion done with your folks and the sheriffs department. There will be another round next year.

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