A train derails, wreaking all sorts of havoc, including a chemical spill, the possibility of an explosion and there is a chance people are trapped inside. 

An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s goes missing and there’s a storm looming on the horizon.

In both cases, law enforcement and emergency management services would be called to the scene.

And now, if either of these situations were to happen in Douglas County, an unmanned aircraft system – otherwise known as a drone – would also be sent to the scene.

The drone was purchased through a donation from West Central Minnesota Emergency Medical Services. The donation covered the entire cost, which was close to $12,000, according to Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen. He added there was no cost to the county.

The MAXSUR Seeker drone was built for public safety and rescue operations and includes a thermal imaging camera.

Wolbersen noted that a similar drone to the one now owned by the sheriff’s office was used in an incident involving a train and a tanker truck that collided near Callaway March 24. The drone was deployed immediately to the scene and got a birds-eye view of the situation.

“They [emergency management personnel] were able to safely view everything that was happening instead of putting boots on the ground and putting people in danger,” said Wolbersen. “Once they knew what was happening, they could better decide how to handle the situation.”

There are other counties within the region using drones including Pope, Otter Tail and Clay.

At the beginning of May, representatives from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) attended a Certified Drone Operator Training in Perham, which included classroom instruction and hands-on flight training. The Perham Fire Department has been using one for several months, noted Wolbersen.

Those attending the training were Wolbersen, sergeants Greg Windhurst and Jason Peterson, deputies Kevin Wiseman and Byran Ziegler and Emergency Management Deputy Director Mark McCabe.

Prior to the sheriff’s office receiving its own drone, Wolbersen said the one from the Perham Fire Department was used to assist in a missing person case near Brandon by Stowes Lake and Wolf Creek this past April.

The drone was able to search in the marshy areas that couldn’t be reached on foot, Wolbersen explained. He added that volunteers from the fire department were on scene and operated the drone during the search.

“We didn’t have to wait for an airplane or helicopter to help,” said Wolbersen. “The advantage of using the drone is that it’s instant.”

Wolbersen stressed that airplanes and helicopters are great resources, but if weather is a factor, they can’t be used. Because drones fly at lower altitudes, weather doesn’t play as big of a factor.

The list is endless when it comes to what a drone can be used for, said Wolbersen. (See fact box.) But no matter the situation, he concluded, “What matters is they can help save lives.”