New Cincinnati-area public safety drone team used during Little Miami River search

Loveland Local News

MIAMI TOWNSHIP (CLERMONT COUNTY), Ohio — There’s a new tool available to public safety officials in the Greater Cincinnati area – and an early callout happened during an emergency on the Little Miami River.

Around 11:45 a.m. June 19, Clermont County dispatchers received a 911 call from someone who believed they saw a kayak in the river and potentially a person in the river near it. After extensive searching from a bridge, officials called the search off without finding a person in distress.

  • Firefighters wait in a grassy area near a swollen Little Miami River.
  • Police officer leaves in his patrol vehicle
  • An Ohio Department of Natural Resources officer speaks with rescue officals.
  • Firefighters stage their dive equipment near the swollen Little Miami River
  • A swollen Little Miami River after recent heavy rains
  • Police officer watches the river from a bridge
  • Drone team members discuss using drones
  • A helicopter flies overhead a river where a reported car had floated down river
  • Emergency officials stage on a bridge over the Great Miami River
  • A water rescue boat sits on a trailer near the Great Miami River
  • Firefighters have a rescue boat ready to deploy into the river
  • Firefighters in dive gear stand near the flooded river
  • A firefighter briefs the drone pilot before a flight to locate a missing kayaker
  • Cases show the drone equipment used by first responders
  • Police officer flies a drone from a bridge

Agencies from across Loveland and Clermont Counties, plus Cincinnati agencies and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources officers, responded to assist in the search. But what was different was the Miami Township Fire Department’s decision to request assistance from the UAS 500 Team. “UAS” stands for “unmanned aerial system,” the Federal Aviation Administration parlance for a drone.

UAS 500 Drone Team, an organization of volunteer drone pilots from police and fire departments from around Greater Cincinnati, assists in search and rescue operations. Woodlawn Fire Chief Amos Johnson, a volunteer drone pilot, said the drones allow for a bird’s eye view during their search, along with other advantages. The group was formed in 2020 and is dispatched through the Hamilton County Communications Center when a public safety official deems a drone might be helpful. River searches, missing person searches and crash scene investigations are just a few uses where drones can be beneficial.

“We can fly drones from a safe location,” Johnson said. “We can put them up, go to the safe height, and come down right in the middle of the river about 50 feet.”

Though they did not find a person in the water, crews did find an empty kayak – with the drone’s assistance.

Miami Township Fire Department Lt. Jonathan McKinnish said the combined search parties did find the boat in the water, but there was no evidence anyone was in it. Instead, officials believe before or after the storm waters knocked the boat into the water.

Having a line-of-sight range of around a quarter-mile, Johnson said he had to repeatedly move along the river during his search to maintain his visual connection with the drone.

Along with being safer, McKinnish, who worked with the drone team, said the drones could be more efficient than putting responders in the water.

“They’ve got some capabilities that the human eye doesn’t have,” McKinnish said. “With infrared, we can sense temperature, in case somebody was to be caught up on a tree and stopped there.”

In May, Colerain Township Fire Department officials activated the UAS 500 Team for a similarly-reported river incident in the Great Miami River. Hamilton County dispatchers received a call from someone reporting they saw a car floating down the very swollen river. First responders mobilized with fire engines, rescue boats, police cars – and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s helicopter swept the area. Even though the aircraft can fly faster and higher than a drone, helicopters are expensive to maintain and costly to fly, averaging thousands of dollars per hour. An average drone runs on batteries, requires minor maintenance and costs about $2,000 to buy and lasts several years.

Fire officials in Colerain called off the search after about an hour. No vehicles or people were found in the river.

Back in the Loveland area, having faced heavy rain and winds the night before, the river was above flood stage in many places, and some parts of Loveland had even flooded. The National Weather Service river gauge at Kings Mills indicated the river went from around 4.5 feet on June 18 morning to 19.35 feet — its highest point during the storms — on June 19 afternoon, where it reached over 2 feet above flood stage. The river had returned to about 8.5 feet June 21.

Because of the storms around this mid-June incident and resulting current — Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR, Patrol Lt. Michael Sterwerf said was over 29,000 cubic feet per second — the department chose to monitor the water using drones as opposed to human-crewed boats.

“We want to always err on the side of caution,” McKinnish said. “That’s why we had the full response with the boats out here, the swift water rescue teams, and had the drones out to facilitate the search.”

During ODNR’s investigation, they found that a person had been on the river in a green kayak following an empty blue canoe that fell into the water. Following up with the original caller, who reported an empty boat and a potential person in the water, they could not confirm anyone was actually in the water.

“As it stands right now, we know we have a vessel that is missing, but we do not know whether we have a person that is missing,” Sterwerf said.

ODNR officers have checked parking lots near the river for evidence of boat launches and will return to see if any vehicles remain untouched later. Along with that, they are monitoring calls for missing persons. Both help determine if someone is missing before prolonging the search.

In events like this, Sterwerf said that if someone sees a person in the water, the best thing they can do is try to pull them from the water if possible and call 911 for assistance, letting the responder know when and where the person was last seen.

“[Calling 911] is probably the best thing. If (the caller is) close to the water, you can throw something to them to help them get back to the shore,” Sterwerf said. “We generally tell people, in these types of conditions, not to go in [the water] after anybody because you’re now putting yourself at risk.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Loveland Local News editor and senior reporter, Joe Wessels, also an FAA-certified drone pilot, is now a volunteer member of the UAS 500 drone response team. He was not on the team when this story was reported or during any of the incidents described in this article.

Last Updated on August 2, 2021 by Joe Wessels

About Henri Robbins 3 Articles
Henri Robbins is a reporter for Loveland Local News. He writes news and feature articles and has a particular knack for uncovering unusual, less-talked-about stories - albeit fascinating - that are right under our noses. A graduate of Mason High School, where he was on the student newspaper staff and covered that district's elected school board with noticeable dexterity, Robbins is now attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is also a member of the Miami student newspaper staff. His articles appear occasionally in Loveland Local News.