Effingham Fire Department Rescues Runaway Boy in First Official UAV Deployment

When a 12-year-old boy ran away from home into a cornfield estimated to foster 120-degree temperatures, Effingham Fire turned to drones for the answer.

Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Effingham Fire Department in Illinois deployed its unmanned aerial vehicle for the very first time on Sunday, in a successful effort to locate a 12-year-old boy who had run away from his home on a particularly hot day and was found wading through a cornfield, the Effingham Daily News reports. Upon successfully rescuing the young runaway, he was taken by Abbott Emergency Medical Services to St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital for thorough observation.

Piloting the department’s drone, for the very first time in Effingham Fire’s history, was Fire Chief Joe Holomy. Shortly after the camera-drone’s deployment, the boy was spotted and easily reached by responders on the ground. Due to the sweltering heat that day, firefighters stayed out of the cornfield and primarily opted for a K-9 to find the kid, but it was quickly decided that a bird’s-eye view might be more practical.

“Given the time of day and the high temperatures, the top priority was the safety and health of the juvenile, as well as first responders,” said Effingham Police Chief Jeff Fuesting. “The supervisor on the scene made the decision to utilize an Effingham Police K-9 Unit to track the juvenile. In addition, a drone was deployed by Effingham Fire Department personnel.”

Effingham Fire’s nearly $5,000 unmanned aerial system purchase was motivated by a letter to local businesses, in which Dr. Karl Rudert urged those who could benefit from the technology to make an effort to actively integrate it. As a public service office in the business of saving people’s lives, Chief Holomy thought it wise to follow the advice, purchasing a unit in May and officially registering it with the department. 

“This was the first time the drone had been used to search for a person,” said Holomy. “The police department contacted me at home that Sunday and I came out and operated it over the cornfield.”

Effingham Fire was initially drawn to the drone’s thermal imaging capabilities, as it could help firefighters assess whether or not an extinguished fire still had underground hotspots lurking beneath a site, and could also provide convenient aerial views of a fire in progress to make more well-informed, strategic decisions. As of Sunday’s successful search and rescue operation, however, both Fire Chief Holomy and Police Chief Fuesting are eager to expand drone training to a wide swath of firefighters and police officers. 

For Police Chief Fuesting, Sunday’s efficient search and rescue mission marked a dawning realization that unmanned technology could work wonders in highly time-sensitive emergency situations, and reduce personal risk for those being rescued as well as the first responders actively doing so. 

“This was the first time we were able to utilize this type of technology,” said Fuesting. “Given the excessive heat of the day, officers made the right call to use the drone immediately, rather than risk officers walking through the dense cornfield where temperatures could easily top 120 degrees.” 

Ultimately, this is simply another case of two public service offices learning how invaluable a tool a basic unmanned aerial vehicle can be in emergency scenarios. We recently reported on drones in crash scene investigations and how increasingly ubiquitous UAVs are in public service offices across the country. For the 12-year-old runaway, at least, this kind of drone universality arguably saved his life.