Eyes in the sky: Local drone operator assists in public safety
By Kris Leonhardt
MARSHFIELD — In the advancing world, needs change over time. With increased technological capabilities, additional resources become valuable, especially in emergency situations.
Locally, the need for additional public safety resources became clear to a Marshfield area man as he assisted in a search and rescue. Drone pilot Branden Bodendorfer was recently called in when Steve and Mollie Schrodi’s dog Jax went missing in the McMillan Marsh.
A happy ending
“On Saturday, (Oct. 28, Mollie and Steve) went out for a walk in the early evening I would say, and in the process of going for a walk, the dog got loose,” said Bodendorfer. “I believe there were some waterfowl there, and the dog got excited and basically got away from them.
“It ended up that they searched Saturday night. They searched all day Sunday, and they searched all day Monday, and then Mollie put out a post on Facebook at 1:27 p.m. saying, ‘Does anybody have a drone or know somebody that could use a drone?’ So a number of people commented about, … and somehow they got my phone number.
“They called me and left a message, and I immediately called them back. Then by 3 p.m. I was actually in the marsh. We searched until about 4:45 p.m. because the sun was going down.”
Steve gave Bodendorfer specific locations where the family had passed through, and they made scans with the drone.
“We drive by the marsh every day, and you don’t realize how big it actually is,” Bodendorfer said. “I mean we can drive around the marsh in five or six minutes with our car, but when you are on foot or when you are looking for a 50-pound dog, how big is it really?”
Bodendorfer had recently completed search and rescue training with the Wisconsin Drone Network, which is facilitated by the Wisconsin Capitol Police.
“That evening I sat back and said that we need to look at this as a search and rescue mission, so Tuesday morning we met at 9 a.m., myself and a couple of volunteers from MAPS (Marshfield Area Pet Shelter). We looked at the marsh and gridded it off in 25-acre sections, and we looked at where he got loose and started in that grid. Then we moved to the next grid and kept working in a counterclockwise pattern around that area. We did that for two reasons: because of the way the scent travels and we just thought from a direction of where he might have gone from that area,” said Bodendorfer.
With the trees dropping their leaves, the team was able to see quite a bit of the marsh. Between the ground crew and the drone operator scanning and identifying areas, the group ruled out regions where Jax was not located.
At approximately 12:20 p.m., Steve was just 30 yards from Jax when the dog heard the drone and began barking.
“He had been 30 yards from the dog for the past 15-20 minutes as we were scanning (the area), and he couldn’t see him,” Bodendorfer said. “There was too much ground coverage. It actually took us about an hour to get to the dog and get him back out.”
‘The right tool for the job’
“Today it was somebody’s dog. Tomorrow it could be somebody’s child or somebody’s grandparent,” Bodendorfer said.
“The reality is that this is a very hard operation when you think about the size of the dog and the area we were covering. … Even though the drone was a tool that helped us cover so much ground, it wasn’t the right tool for the job,” he added.
Bodendorfer said with infrared technology — a thermal camera — the search for Jax could have continued into the night and would have led to a quicker rescue.
“If we would have had an infrared camera in this operation, we probably would have located him within a few hours the first night because what is unique about drone technology and infrared is I am able to sense heat sources,” said Bodendorfer.
Marshfield Police Chief Rick Gramza also noted that infrared technology could improve security for public safety officers and local residents.
“Being able to use this technology to see body heat and movement will help locate and identify individuals from a safe distance,” Gramza said.
With public funding for an infrared camera nonexistent, Bodendorfer is attempting to raise $13,000 through a GoFundMe page to bring the technology to Marshfield.
Part of a larger need
Bodendorfer is just one individual that is helping to meet a growing need in the state.
Local and state public safety officers have recognized the benefit of drone technology — as well as the advantages of partnering with skilled operators — and are working to ensure its use in critical situations.
Capitol Police Sgt. Chris Litzkow is the Wisconsin Drone Network program coordinator.
“Since March 2017, nearly 35 agencies have banded together into what is known as the Wisconsin Drone Network,” said Litzkow. “Members of the network consist of police, fire, and emergency management personnel along with a group of specialized civilians.
“The network is an available resource to all public safety agencies throughout the state regardless of if they are members. With one call to Wisconsin Emergency Management’s 24-hour hotline, the Drone Network is activated, and the closest pilots are dispatched to assist. The most common requests the Drone Network receives is for such things as missing persons, damage assessment photos, and crime-scene documentation.”
After training with the Capitol Police, Bodendorfer reached out to both the Marshfield Fire & Rescue Department and the Marshfield Police Department to discuss ways to integrate drone usage into public safety, not just for search and rescue but tactical situations as well.
“I think (drone) technology assists both law enforcement and the community in numerous ways,” said Gramza. “Historically, when searching for a lost person or fugitive, law enforcement had to perform (a) methodical grid searched with numerous people. This could often consume a vast amount of time resources when timeliness is of the essence, not to mention putting lives in danger if the hunt is for a fugitive. This technology allows for timely and safe searching capabilities. I can think of many times when this technology would have come in handy in the last couple years.
“In the law enforcement, we cannot be experts in all facets of technology while still maintaining proficiency in our profession. We look to others to assist us in policing society, and when opportunities to partner come about for the betterment of the community, we would be foolish to not take advantage of (these) relationships.”
To assist in funding Marshfield’s thermal camera, visit gofundme.com/thermal-camera-for-local-sar. Go to hubcitytimes.com/2017/11/08/video-the-search-for-jax to watch a video of the search for Jax.