How to Incorporate Drones into Police Work: An Interview with Tom Agos, Crime Prevention Specialist for the Gurnee Police Department
BY Zacc Dukowitz17 October 2017
Thomas Agos is a Crime Prevention Specialist in the Gurnee Police Department located in Gurnee, IL, and over the last year he’s been working to incorporate drones into the police work he does with the department.
In less than a year the department has gone from not using drones at all to creating a detailed UAS Operations policy, and using drones in emergency and other scenarios.
Agos already holds a remote pilot license, and seven more Gurnee police officers are currently studying to pass the Part 107 test. All of them are Drone Pilot Ground School students—learn more about how we can help you pass the Part 107 test here.
We know that many public agencies are currently working to incorporate drones into their operations, so we wanted to hear more from Agos on how he helped build the UAV program in Gurnee.
Read on to find out.
Tom Agos uses a drone to assess damage following a flood
Want to see the Gurnee Police Department’s UAS Operations policy manual?
Download the full document here. (Shared with permission from the Gurnee Police Department. To unlock the document for editing, use the password gurnee.)
UAV Coach: Tell us about your work with the Gurnee Police Department. What do you do, and how long have you been doing it?
Thomas Agos: I am a 30-year employee of the Gurnee Police Department. I did 20 years on the street in patrol, and then for the last ten years I’ve been in the office working on special projects, crime prevention, crime analysis, and budgeting.
As part of that job I stumbled across the UAV world, and found it fascinating. I knew right away that this was technology that we would be able to use for public safety. So I started pursuing that, picking away at that thread, and eventually we got to the point where we are today.
UAV Coach: Adoption of a UAV program within a public agency—or any organization for that matter—can require some work to shift the institutional culture, and help people become aware of the value of using drones. What kinds of challenges have you faced as you built the UAV program for the Gurnee Police Department, and how have you overcome them?
Thomas Agos: I like to say that we were blessed back in July, 2016 because we had a propane tank fire.
Propane tanks were actually exploding as a result of this fire, and they were flying across the industrial park where the fire was located. At the time I had my own personal DJI Phantom 3, and I was able to provide air support for the fire department so they could get a view of the scene from the air.
This information was crucial in helping to determine when fire fighters might want to have people evacuate, and how far out the evacuation zone should be—whether it should be a quarter mile, a half mile, one mile, etc., because there were two 20,000 gallon tanks that were close to that fire that they were very concerned about.
Using my Phantom 3 I was able to communicate to the command post exactly where the hot spots were still burning. With this information they repositioned some assets in order to be able to tamp those fires down, and the whole situation stabilized shortly thereafter.
And this is why I like to say that we were blessed by the fire, because everyone involved in that case, both from the fire department and from law enforcement, they were all instantly sold on the necessity of having this technology available and being able to deploy it quickly in a time of crisis.
After that, the decision was made to buy a drone for the police department.
As we were doing research a local construction firm named J.J. Henderson Construction, which usually provides us with funds on an annual basis, approached the department and offered to buy the drone for us. Everything fell into place from there.
[As a side note, the Gurnee Police Department would like to give a big thank you to J.J. Henderson Construction for all of their support.]
UAV Coach: After you got buy-in within the department, what were your next steps for starting to build the UAV program?
Thomas Agos: After we received the funds we purchased a Phantom 4 for the department.
At the same time I started the process of applying for a COA with the FAA. Also during that time, roughly beginning in January of this year, I enrolled myself in Drone Pilot Ground School to help study for the Part 107 test.
Fast forward just ten months, and today I have my remote pilot license and we have a team of seven officers studying to pass the Part 107 test. By the end of this year we will have a cohesive team of seven officers plus myself, and we’ll be capable and ready at any given time to use this equipment for public safety purposes.
UAV Coach: Can you tell us about deciding to pursue both a COA and a remote pilot license—what was the thought process there?
Thomas Agos: Just to clarify, we’ve applied for a COA but we haven’t heard back from the FAA yet.
But to answer your question, we feel like it’s smart to do both because it adds a certain air of professionalism to the program.
The licensing of the pilots is for the benefit and protection of our officers, to reassure the public that we are taking all responsible steps to do things safely and by the book, and it’s also for our insurance carrier.
We recognize that flying a drone isn’t a game. It can come down and hurt people, and it can cause insurance claims of enormous magnitude, and so we want our team to be professionally trained. These are the considerations you need to take into account when you’re a pilot in command of one of these missions, and we take that very seriously.
Aerial shot of Gurnee following a flood
UAV Coach: How do you see drones being incorporated into regular activities with the police department? Will the use of drones be reactive, as fires or other scenarios arise, or are there regular activities planned for your UAV program?
Thomas Agos: I think it’s going to be both.
The reason I say that is because, as you know, a UAV is not something that you just pull out of the closet every six months and go play with. The drone has to be maintained and inspected, and your pilot skills have to be maintained for you to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
Along those lines, while our team is studying for the Part 107 test we’re putting together a flight schedule that calls for regular, ongoing outdoor and indoor flights in order for those skills to continue developing and be maintained.
Indoor training is important to us. Even though it’s not technically covered by FAA regulations, there could be a hostage situation or some kind of active shooter situation where the best move is to try and send a drone into a building. And as you know, flying indoors requires training for proficiency, since things get squirrelly when there’s no GPS.
In addition to flight training and maintenance, each officer on the team will have a specific responsibility related to the UAV program. For example, one will be in charge of budgeting; another will be in charge of legislation; another will be involved in policymaking; another will be in charge of equipment maintenance, and so on.
There’s nothing worse than going to get a piece of equipment during an emergency, and finding that it’s not ready to fly. If you don’t stay on top of the firm ware, and if you don’t stay on top of the batteries, it’s entirely possible that you won’t be able to deploy it.
We’re also going to have log books, and a system of accountability so that we have a paper trail for reporting requirements, and to ensure that the system is ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
UAV Coach: How did you develop the UAS Operations policy manual that you now have in place? Did you use existing resources, or build it all yourself, or some combination of the two?
Thomas Agos: The International Association of Chiefs of Police released a model policy regarding UAVs a little while back. Then shortly thereafter, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police did the same thing.
Internally we took these two policies, and we merged them with our own thoughts about how we wanted the program to operate, also making sure to incorporate the FAA’s Part 107 rules. This was not a fast process.
But we worked through it, and eventually we came up with a single document, our UAS Operations policy manual, which all of our officers have to sign off on regardless of whether or not they’re operators.
UAV Coach: Given that drones can sometimes face negative PR in town councils due to privacy concerns, did you face any pushback in Gurnee, politically or otherwise, as you were working to incorporate UAVs into the police department?
Thomas Agos: No, we’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
In our community we’ve had a lot of support from the public and elected officials.
I think that in large part this is because we’ve worked hard to approach our UAV program professionally, openly, and transparently, and with the emphasis that we see the drone as an important tool for certain jobs, not as a toy to use casually in any given circumstance.
We make sure to openly discuss and emphasize the proficiency and training of our officers, and this approach seems to have anticipated and addressed concerns before they really arose.
UAV Coach: Do you have any final words of advice for other people working in police departments or public agencies who are trying to incorporate drones into their operations?
Thomas Agos: I would say to just look at it from a really basic, practical point of view.
What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? How are you going to reassure your public that you’re using it for their good, and so on.
Along the way there will be a lot of trial and error. Some things will work and others won’t. But after working carefully for a while you’ll lift your head up and realize that, surprise, you actually have a functioning, effective UAV unit in your police department. And that is a wonderful place to get to.
Thomas Agos is happy to be a resource for others looking to incorporate drones into their work with public agencies.
Please contact Zacc Dukowitz at zacc[at]uavcoach[dot]com for Agos’ contact information.
Know a high school student interested in passing the FAA’s Part 107 exam?
Tell him or her about our High School STEM Scholarship for Aspiring Commercial Drone Pilots. Learn more at https://www.dronepilotgroundschool.com/scholarship/