Drone saves time and resources during rescue from Yellow River

Decorah Fire Department volunteers Marcus Hageman and Zach Kerndt (left to right in above photo) fly the drone recently purchased by the Decorah Fire Department and even more recently used to help area entities in search and rescue efforts. The drone was used August 20 in a search and rescue in Allamakee County that involved six ladies from the Quad Cities area who were lost along a stretch of the Yellow River between Ion and Effigy Mounds. Photo by Lissa Blake, Decorah Newspapers.

Although there doesn't appear to be much to it, the drone pictured above owned by the Decorah Fire Department has performed some significant tasks since its recent purchase. The drone was used August 20 in a search and rescue in Allamakee County that involved six ladies from the Quad Cities area who were lost along a stretch of the Yellow River between Ion and Effigy Mounds. Photo by Lissa Blake, Decorah Newspapers.

by Lissa Blake

New technology recently saved precious time during a call to rescue six tubers lost on the Yellow River in Allamakee County.

According to Harpers Ferry Fire and Rescue Chief Dave Cota, the Decorah Fire Department’s new drone helped emergency personnel locate the stranded individuals in record time. The six women rescued were from the Quad Cities area.

“The stretch of Yellow River between Ion and Effigy Mounds is both rugged and desolate. They were out there in no-man’s land,” said Cota of the rescue that occurred Sunday evening, August 20.

Cota said it was the second time his department has been called to that stretch of the river. “People don’t realize there’s really no current along that stretch of the river,” he said.

Cota said it took the drone only about 10 minutes to locate three of the missing persons. The drone was able to carry and drop a radio to the people so they could communicate with emergency personnel.

“I think it really calmed them - the fact they were able to use the walkie-talkies to talk to emergency personnel,” said Cota.

During the course of this communication, emergency personnel became aware there were three additional people who had become separated from the group. After employing the use of the drone’s camera, the other group of three people was located in about three minutes.

After locating all six of the individuals, Harpers Ferry Fire and Rescue personnel were then able to use a utility terrain vehicle to travel to their locations and rescue them. None of the six individuals involved was injured.

Allamakee County Emergency Management Coordinator Corey Snitker said it was teamwork that led to a quick and successful rescue. “Everyone was working together for a common goal. It’s a heavily vegetated area and everyone did a great job,” said Snitker.

Those aiding the situation included the Decorah Fire Department, Harpers Ferry Fire and Rescue, the Iowa Highway Patrol, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department and Allamakee County Emergency Management.

Decorah Volunteer Firefighter Zach Kerndt said he got the idea to purchase a drone from a friend and high school classmate, Robby Jewell of Jewellable Productions of Decorah. Jewell suggested to Kerndt that the Decorah Fire Department (DFD) could benefit from owning one.

“We first took his drone and tested it out. Everybody thought it was a good idea,” said Kerndt, adding the initial purchase with complete set-up cost around $15,000.

“So far, it’s been a great investment,” said Kerndt.

The DFD’s drone is a DJI Inspire 1. It has a thermal imaging camera and regular camera, along with a “storks” kit, which includes a claw. The drone can carry up to five pounds and can drop its payload in a specific spot. It also has the ability to carry a small rope or paracord across the river. Once it reaches the other side, rescue personnel can use the small rope to pull across the thicker, much heavier rescue rope to help during river rescues.

“It can carry a radio, white board with a note on it, a life jacket and more,” said Hageman.

Kerndt and fellow volunteer firefighter Marcus Hageman have attended week-long training sessions and each has acquired a part 107 commercial drone pilot license. The drone came with a simple remote control that is run with an iPad, so the person operating the controls on the drone can view exactly what the camera is seeing.

In addition to helping in missing persons cases, the drone’s infrared camera can be used to detect hot spots during fires. “Marcus and I can hop in a truck and head out first, survey the area with the drone and know where to send guys when they arrive,” said Kerndt.

“We can also set it to record and we can go back and look at a scene and train off of what we did and didn’t do,” added Hageman.

“We’re finding so many uses for it we never even dreamed off,” added fellow Decorah firefighter Lee Bjerke.

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