Hamilton County’s Flagship Drone Command Vehicle Improves Emergency Response Operations  

As drone use becomes increasingly widespread among law enforcement agencies located in nearby jurisdictions, it is only natural that they’ve begun to collaborate and share their drone resources whenever needed.  But Chattanooga is the first major city in Tennessee – and one of the first anywhere – to purchase and deploy a drone “command” vehicle to allow a wide array of local responders to share details of their operations in real time to improve coordination, enhance efficiency, reduce costs and save lives.

Chattanooga and the larger jurisdiction of Hamilton County have used drones since 2016, and 18 pilots are now certified to fly them.  In 2022 alone,  the county drone team conducted nearly 700 missions, primarily to search for missing persons, support crime scene investigations and pursue fleeing suspects.  Many of these missions eventually required the support of several  jurisdictions, but without prior notification, nearby responders often had to scramble their resources to assist, reducing operational efficiency in time-sensitive missions.  With a drone command vehicle in place, all response agencies in a wide radius can be made aware of each other’s needs early to better coordinate their support operations.

The new drone support vehicle – which cost the county $168,000 to purchase and equip – resembles a large cargo van with a massive 15-foot tall antenna installed on its roof.  Inside the van are rows of tables with video monitors and sophisticated electronic communications and data processing equipment.  Essentially the vehicle functions as a mobile command and control center.  Each jurisdiction retains its operational autonomy, though protocols are in place that allow for routine collaboration in specific types of missions.

The need for the commanded vehicle – dubbed a “UCV” –  first became apparent in 2020 during Hamilton County’s response to a tornado that swept through the area, killing a dozen people and destroying 9,000 building structures.  County drones succeeded in documenting the devastation from above but could have played a greater role helping to coordinate the relief effort, officials say.  One problem was the uneven local terrain which made communications intermittent.  With its enormous communications mast, the county’s new UCV has largely solved that problem while enhancing responder operations across the board.

Despite the major upgrade, some County residents have expressed concern that an expanded drone effort might infringe on citizen privacy and landowner property rights.  In fact, high-level authorization is normally required to conduct overflights of private property, County officials insist.  In life-saving missions, the Sheriff’s office and other emergency responders are granted leeway to fly wherever needed but are still supposed to notify property owners in advance, whenever possible.  Routine overflights of private property are strictly prohibited.

“This is not about Big Brother … this is in direct response to a mission,” a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office insists.  “The law enforcement oversight on this program is tremendously different than the private sector, so it regulates at a great level where we can fly.”

Despite their improved coordination, most of the drones that operate in Hamilton County are still equipped with simple video surveillance cameras.  A few can perform thermal imaging or drop life jackets or blankets to those exposed to the elements.  The county hopes to begin upgrading its drones to perform an expanded range of missions – but it may need another special budget appropriation to pay for them.

Successful use of its flagship drone command vehicle will first need to be demonstrated, county officials say.

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