ALBANY, Ore. -- A drone operated by the Benton County Sheriff's Office assisted in a rescue on the Willamette River in mid-September.
According to officials, a man fell out of a canoe near Hyak Park on Sept. 12. He swam to the bank of the river as rescue crews made their way to his location.
Meanwhile, Deputy Doug Seirup heard the call on his radio. He made his way to the park and deployed a drone and used it to locate the stranded boater.
Using a loudspeaker attached to the drone, Seirup communicated with him, asking if he was safe and OK to wait for help.
Seirup shared the boater's location with crews and the man was soon rescued.
"(I was) able to let them know, 'Hey, I located them; they are ok; you don't need to maybe expedite as fast as they possibly would," said Seirup.
The drone was one of three the Benton County Sheriff's Office uses in the field. They can be equipped with speakers, floodlights and thermal cameras, making them versatile tools for law enforcement.
"When it comes to search and rescue or crash reconstruction, or assisting other deputies or law enforcement that are on the ground with better situational awareness to keep us and the public safe, it just fits in day-to-day with the things we do," Seirup said.
Though law enforcement agencies nationwide are adopting drone fleets, officials said that public perceptions that drones can be used to violate privacy remain.
"We aren't there prying on them, we're trying to protect them," said Kevin Higgins with the Benton County Sheriff's Office. "If we fly out over their house, it's really to get to an area there's maybe a suspect or some activity we need to observe and we aren't sitting there staring at them."
Authorities said that their drone policy is compliant with Oregon law, which requires a search warrant for any surveillance operation. In addition, footage captured inadvertently during training or unrelated cases is inadmissible in court.
Officials with the sheriff's office said the drones were paid for with a federal grant, the largest of them costing $30,000.
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