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Drones becoming indispensable tool for Fargo area law enforcement, fire officials

Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said a recent cornfield arrest underscores the value of drones to law enforcement. Public safety officials are increasingly using unmanned aircraft for everything from firefighting to tracking suspects.

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Troy Becker / The Forum
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FARGO — In July, a resident of the Gardner, N.D., area called for help from the Cass County Sheriff's Office after a suspicious person entered a trailer on the caller's property and later fled into a cornfield.

Upon arriving, the first thing deputies did was set up a perimeter around the field.

Then, one of two Cass County deputies trained in how to pilot drones put a drone in the air and used its thermal-imaging capability to quickly pinpoint the suspect, who was then taken into custody without incident.

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Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said the cornfield situation underscores the growing value of drones in helping law enforcement officers do their jobs.

"That (drone) makes it safer for everyone," Jahner said.

"I'm not only talking about law enforcement, but all of the residents around that area and the suspects themselves," added Jahner, who said drones provide officers with an early warning system when confronted with potentially dangerous situations, including when answering alarm calls, or dealing with someone barricaded in a residence.

In the case of the cornfield arrest, Jahner said the drone made quick work of something that could have otherwise taken a large amount of time and personnel to resolve.

But the biggest benefit of using a drone, Jahner said, is that it increases the likelihood a situation will be resolved peacefully.

"Just to get a visual image of the situation, to try to figure out how we can resolve the situation peacefully, so no one gets hurt," he said.

The sheriff's office began its drone program in 2017 and since then its drone team has logged a combined total of 1,130 flights for a total of 180 flight hours.

In addition to the county's two-person team, there is also the Red River Regional Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) team, which is comprised of the sheriff's office and the fire and police departments of Fargo and West Fargo.

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The latter is usually called out for large incidents that require a significant amount of time and resources, according to Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen.

Dirksen said the regional drone team pooled resources to purchase an advanced drone capable of providing high-quality photos, video and heat signature imagery, though he said drone imagery of any kind is valuable.

"It provides a huge aerial picture for us to have good situational awareness of what's going on," Dirksen said, adding that the more drones are used, the more they become an indispensable tool in fighting fires.

"The guys are finding out how incredibly valuable that is, especially for the incident commanders in making decisions," Dirksen said.

With fire departments and law enforcement agencies becoming more versed in drone flying, Dirksen said they have come to depend on each other when major incidents occur.

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drone image dec. 5 fire
This image shows drone footage from a fire in north Fargo on Dec. 5. Special to The Forum.

For example, he said, when law enforcement officers require a drone for a serious situation it is often a firefighter who operates the craft and he said the reverse is true when a major fire requires all hands on deck.

"When we have an incident, law enforcement provide the drone," said Dirksen, who added that the fire department uses a drone about once every six weeks or so.

Jahner acknowledged that when it comes to drones, some in the community worry about privacy issues.

"I know there have been questions on that from people who say, 'Can this thing just fly around and look at anyone?' And no, we can't do that," Jahner said, adding that before a drone can be used to surveil or track a suspect on private property a search warrant would be necessary.

That wasn't necessary in the recent arrest of a suspect in the cornfield, he said, because the owner of the property gave permission for a search to be conducted.

"In other circumstances, they would need the right search warrants," Jahner said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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