Officials from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and Getchell Fire Department on Wednesday, Nov. 13, used a drone to find a missing Lake Stevens woman that was stuck in blackberry bushes. (Getchell Fire Department)

Officials from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and Getchell Fire Department on Wednesday, Nov. 13, used a drone to find a missing Lake Stevens woman that was stuck in blackberry bushes. (Getchell Fire Department)

Drones give state, local agencies a helpful eye in the sky

The Washington State Patrol has one of the largest drone fleets in the country with 130 statewide.

MONROE — Eyes on.

The city of Monroe is joining a growing number of local governments and agencies turning to the skies to gain a new perspective.

On Tuesday, the City Council set aside $18,000 in its 2020 budget for a flying drone to be shared by the city’s police, public works, marketing and other departments, city administrator Deborah Knight said.

Monroe parks director Mike Farrell said the new tool will help his department plan events and monitor projects.

The city’s stormwater division will use aerial photography to monitor important drainage routes that are sometimes covered by blackberry bushes.

Although the city budget goes into effect in January, the program will take months to get off the ground due to extensive required training.

Monroe’s purchase comes as drones and aerial photography become more prevalent in government agencies.

The Washington State Patrol started a drone pilot program in 2016, Sgt. Darren Wright said. A little more than three years later, the agency has one of the largest fleets in the country, with 130 of the drones statewide.

Their main use is for documenting the scenes of vehicle collisions, Wright said, and they’ve cut investigation times drastically.

Before, recording skid marks and areas where cars crashed or came to rest could force troopers to close lanes for hours, he said. With aerial photography, specialists can create maps of a scene in 20 minutes.

Since government and law enforcement agencies have started to use drones, organizations like the ACLU and the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center have pushed for regulation on how they can be used.

Officials from local agencies using the airborne machines said they’re not used for surveillance.

In Snohomish County, the sheriff’s office, city of Edmonds, Lynnwood Police Department and Getchell Fire Department all use drones.

The Getchell department started using drones in 2017, Chief Travis Hots said.

The department’s machines aren’t what you’ll find in a hobby store.

Each costs about $25,000 and comes equipped with an infrared camera with a powerful zoom lens.

Hots and Deputy Chief Jeremy Stocker are the drones’ only licensed operators. They use the machines about once every three days to provide better views of fires or to help assist nearby agencies, Hots said.

“The idea behind it was to give crews more situational awareness,” he said.

On Wednesday, Hots assisted the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in the search for a 66-year-old Lake Stevens woman who went missing.

Using the drone, he spotted the woman stuck in blackberry bushes near her home. He let deputies know and they got her out safely.

In Edmonds, the city’s public works department bought its first drone in 2016.

“We had a couple of guys, myself included, that owned drones of our own — we saw the potential and started the discussions,” said streets and storm manager Tod Moles.

It took about six months of training before staff could fly the machine, which made its maiden municipal voyage in October 2017 after a mudslide in a Meadowdale neighborhood.

Fallen mud and trees threatened about 30 homes, and aerial photography let authorities know when it was safe to lift an evacuation notice.

Shortly after that flight, the machine crashed in some branches and had to be replaced. The city’s drones cost about $1,500, Moles said.

Since then, the parks department and urban forest management team have been using the drone.

“You really get an awful lot out of it,” Moles said. “I think they’ll find more and more uses for these things, and it’s certainly a benefit to us.”

The drone has also saved the city some money.

When the Edmonds City Council pondered a parking study in the summer, the drone was used to take photos of downtown, which cut $10,000 from the proposed study’s budget.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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