Drones Are Saving Lives in Northern Alabama Thanks to Desoto

Photo of Squad Drones Are Saving Lives in Alabama
Drones Are Saving Lives in Alabama

DeSoto Rescue Squad operates in the northeast corner of Alabama and provides EMS First Response to the communities of Mentone and Valley Head. Their services often extend to the neighboring town of Hammondville and DeKalb County EMS when supplemental assistance is needed. Drones are saving lives and improving the safety of search and rescue operations in northern Alabama thanks to the folks at Desoto Rescue Squad.

The area served by the squad lies in the Alabama Valley and Ridge physiographic zone, characterized by steep rocky ridges overlooking valleys below. This zone includes the Lookout Mountain ridgeline that runs to Chattanooga. It is a very rural area forested primarily with hardwoods. The terrain is rugged. Getting to remote spots requires four-wheel-drive vehicles, ATV’s, and travel by foot.

How DeSoto Rescue Uses Drones

“Drones have been a valuable asset for our community,” Shane Holman, sUAV Commander said. “They bring a different perspective to the situation at hand, making them invaluable for searches. In our area, we have a lot of mountains to cover. Drones can get the visual faster than men and women on the ground.”

Local fire departments call on DeSoto Rescue to assist with forest fire management. On one occasion, the squad used a Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual drone to help spot gaps in fire lanes.  DeSoto Rescue’s drone team was able to quickly identify the hot spots so that dozers could route the fire lanes accordingly. It would have taken much more time for ground surveys in the challenging terrain of the Mentone area to accomplish the same level of awareness.

Drone Image of Forest Fire

Insert Fire 1

Thermal Sensor Shows Hot Spots

Fire spotting is just a small part of the squad’s drone applications. Search and rescue (SAR) operations where missing persons are involved are the main function of DeSoto Rescue’s drones. They even participated in a SAR for a missing animal.

Lean and Resourceful

DeSoto Rescue is an all-volunteer organization with a big vision. This excerpt from the squad’s website ( http://www.desotorescue.com/about/) describes their typical activities:

“Our primary day to day operations are centered around responding to emergency and non-emergency calls for service. We respond to lift-assist calls, medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and other trauma and rescue situations. It is our mission to arrive quickly on-scene and begin providing care to the patients prior to the arrival of the ambulance.”

Resources are limited since funding comes primarily from donations. Since the squad formed in 1965, they have acquired three older vehicles and a 19-foot travel trailer that serves as a command post for mobile operations.

Currently, they use the facilities of a local church and community center for their monthly meetings, training sessions, and special events. The squad’s long term goals are acquiring a dedicated building and expanding member training opportunities.

DeSoto Rescue began using drones in March of 2017. They started with A DJI Mavic Pro, chosen for its lightweight and portability. The next step was the acquisition of a DJI Phantom 3, which became the squad’s practice drone. Currently, they have two DJI Phantom 3 Drones and one DJI Phantom 4 Drone.

Training members on visual observations and FAA Remote Pilot licensing were fundamental requirements for assembling an organized and productive team. Adding drone capabilities to an established EMS service enabled DeSoto Rescue to expand its capabilities to serve the area communities better.

sUAV Commander Shane Holman


While drone use for SAR operations and fire spotting are a significant improvement over feet-on-the-ground methods, there are some drawbacks. “A lot of people have this belief that drones are the end-all solution to finding people,” Holman said. “The sad truth is that this isn’t the case. Drones are tools and have their shortcomings.”

Holman continued, “While we have had successful searches. One such search that taught us a valuable lesson is one in which we had to search a river in the wintertime for a missing person. We were not successful, and we were both flying thermal drones.”

“One of the issues we had was that the target was likely in or near the water – thermal is useless in this situation. So we had to rely on visual instead. We were still extra tools for the ground crews there. Unfortunately, the day turned out later to not be fruitful.”

While advances in drone technology continue to make high-tech news for detailed mapping and engineering applications, they have a major place in emergency services on which we all rely. DeSoto Rescue Squad’s story proves that technology, when directed to a meaningful purpose, can add a new layer of security to our daily lives.

Richard Rybka, Technology Journalist

(205) 577-7721


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