Sheriff's drone helps community with a variety of needs
Last updated 3/14/2023 at 6:38pm
A brush fire burns in a rural area away from roads and easy access. Is it in danger of going near houses?
A tornado travels across the county on a late afternoon. Where did it go and how many buildings did it damage?
A child is lost in the woods. Volunteers are ready to search, but could use guidance for directions.
A suicidal person jumps from the Rainbow Bridge. Their body needs to be recovered.
The list can go on and on for the time emergency personnel in Orange County call on the help of Captain Joey Jacobs. He's the chief operator of the Orange County Sheriff's Office's drone program.
Jacobs said now-retired sheriff Keith Merritt started the drone program back in 2017. Sheriff Lane Mooney expanded the program when he took office in 2020 and now the department has two.
It's a tool now used in variety of law enforcement and public service needs, but Jacobs stresses the drones are not used to spy on people. Privacy laws and evidence rules restrict some of the uses of the drones.
"Every flight we take has to be logged and filed with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and we keep back-up logs. Those logs are public information and are available under open records.
Jacobs said anyone who operates a drone is required to have an FAA license, either a regular pilot's license or one for drone's only. s He opted a few years ago to get a full pilot's license and he knows all the flight regulations to follow.
In addition, the sheriff's office has a list of the rules for using drones posted on its website for public viewing.
"We're going to be 100 percent transparent in all we do with our program," Jacobs said.
Frank Carpenter also has a license to work with the drone.
The newest, smaller drone, which makes a buzz like a blow fly, has computer capacities that record the time and GPS locations of the video it takes. The footage is relayed to a big TV screen that Jacobs keeps in his department SUV so he and others can watch. The drone also records the video on a jump drive that can be copied and shared.
For instance, the stormy late afternoon in January when an EF-2 tornado traveled across the county, Emergency Operations Director Joel Ardoin called on Jacobs. When daylight came the next morning, Jacobs took the drone up to follow the pathway of the damage. That allowed a count of the buildings that were damaged.
The video with GPS was given to the meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Lake Charles to study and track the tornado. It was another tool they used to show the twister went 26 miles through the county.
Another recent use came when Emergency Services District 1 in the Vidor area had a brush fire that was in a remote marshy area. Houses were near, but firefighters did not know whether the flames were spreading in a direction that would touch the residences.
Jacobs said the county in the past may have requested the use of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office helicopter. But Orange County would have been charged for the use. Jacobs said the trip would have cost at least $1,000 in fuel.
The drones "really can save the county money," he said.
The recent Ohio train derailment with chemical cars brought back memories of one in Mauriceville in October 2020. Jacobs was out with a drone helping to determine the extent of the damage, whether tank cars were leaking, and if houses were nearby.
The first drone was about three-feet wide, but the newer one is like cigar box with antennas. It fits into a large briefcase-size container that also includes the remote and other equipment. Jacobs, who also serves as the captain of the criminal investigation department, keeps the drone case in his sheriff's SUV. It's handy when needed.
Other uses have included checking the scene of double murder-suicide case as SWAT officers stood by, observing a fatal boat accident, and investigation fatal vehicle crashes.
Orange County Sheriff's Office also works in a consortium with other drone operations across the Gulf Coast. Other counties or parishes will send their drone teams here, if needed, and the Orange County team helps others. Jacobs said last year after Hurricane Ian, he and deputies from here went to Houma, Louisiana, area. They used the drone to see what roads were clear enough to travel before they even arrived.
The drones can be good public relations, too. Jacobs said kids and families at the annual Claiborne West Park Cops and Kids festival love seeing drone demonstrations.
He recalls a time when he was at the park practicing and a 7-year-old boy nearby was watching intently. He invited the boy to watch. When the boy told him he had a drone-style video game he used, Jacobs let him pilot his drone for a minute. The captain will never forget the boy's face.
Jacobs once had an extra special audience. A couple of days after Hurricane Laura hit in 2020, President Donald Trump flew to Orange and met with officials at the county's Emergency Operations Center. Governor Greg Abbott came in to meet with the President. The two leaders got a demonstration on the use of the drone after the storm.
Jacobs has been in law enforcement for 27 years and has worked for three sheriff's. Back in 1996, he could not have dreamed of the technical advances that would allow deputies to use a drone in their work. It's another tool for the job.
And there are some priceless benefits. Sometimes when using the drone for a job, Jacobs catches a sky shot of a view like a sunset that leaves him in awe.
"Sometimes you set there and you are amazed at God's paintings," he said.