Drone team keeps watch over dangers in Mahoning County
YOUNGSTOWN — From the parking lot of the former Riverside school in Poland, Mahoning County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Hovanec operates a small drone inside the building.
Wearing video goggles, Hovanec maneuvers the black drone up the stairway and into the first-floor hallway, then into multiple classrooms and closets to search for and find practice targets taped to the walls.
One of the targets depicts a man pointing a gun.
Hovanec is engaged in the type of training he and the five other drone operators do to keep their skills sharp — in the event they are called to find and stop a real gunman inside a building.
The drone, in fact, was deployed in a recent real-life hostage situation, but the drone pilots were not able to discuss the specifics other than to say small and large drones were deployed.
The small drone Hovanec flew during the recent training operation can allow an officer to communicate with a suspect inside the building, possibly improving the ability to negotiate.
A GREAT VIEW
For nearly seven years, drone team members have trained and become certified through the Federal Aviation Administration and flown their drones in a variety of situations. The drone pilots practice a couple of times per month.
“We also have one licensed pilot who used to fly commercial, so we have a pretty well-versed team. We keep very updated,” said Lt. Gari Hyshaw, head of the drone team. “It brings a level of professionalism. It keeps us on our toes because there are a lot of rules that we have to follow that a normal drone pilot does not have to follow.”
Hyshaw said training in the former school prepares them for active-shooter situations. “It’s the main reason we wanted to push this,” she said. “We always train for just in case.”
In certain situations, the drone team might send the small drone inside the building and use the large drone outside of the building.
The outside drone “gives you a great overall view for the team to see,” she said. Images are displayed on a large video monitor inside the drone team’s vehicle so that other officers can see what the drone is seeing, such as the exits and windows on a building.
It can tell officers where hostages might be located and help officers who might later enter the building. Hovanec said it makes the operation safer for law enforcement.
“We don’t know what is on the other side of the door sometimes. It allows us to be safe so not to subject us to harm or jeopardize anybody else,” Hovanec said. “When we go in with the drone, we are looking for victims, a possible suspect, missing children, elderly people and any obstacles that might cause harm to us or the public.”
One might wonder if flying a drone inside of a building containing a suspect might lead to the drone being destroyed, but Hyshaw noted the cost of a drone is small. “These are cheap compared to a life,” she said.
Hyshaw said a small drone can be sent into a building to allow law enforcement to see the inside layout, and look inside rooms and closets to try to identify the most important locations.
“That’s been game-changing for the safety of the public and safety for our officers,” she said. The drone team has been able to do this type of surveillance for about 2 1/2 years.
The team worked the Canfield Fair this year, using drones to locate missing children. The team also assisted the Youngstown Police Department in 2020, using a drone to help the department identify motorcycle and ATV riders who were using the vehicles illegally at a North Side location — tracking them from above and watching them return home.
Hovanec said the sheriff’s office uses the larger drone, with a spotlight that can be directed to various locations at night, and it can emit a siren sound or communicate with someone on the ground.
The drone team flew every night during the Canfield Fair this year. It was the first time the drone team worked the fair.
In one situation, two girls, ages 5 and 7, were reported missing by their parents. “They were last seen feeding the butterflies,” Hyshaw said. The parents had a photo in their phone of the girls that was taken at the fair showing clothing they were wearing.
The drone went up, and the girls were located within a couple of minutes and returned to their parents, Hyshaw said. They had not gotten too far away.
“Our capabilities are so good, we were able to zoom in and see the sunflowers on her shirt,” Hyshaw said of one of the girls. They helped recover 15 children during the fair.
At the fair, they used the siren and spotlight features, and the ability to alert people about issues through the speaker on the drone.
GOES WHERE NEEDED
“It’s nice to be able to assist. The sheriff is very big on assisting the community in any way possible, especially with this program. It’s not just for the sheriff’s office. We go out to any department that needs us,” said Hyshaw, whose main assignment is working as a supervisor in the jail.
Sheriff Jerry Greene said the drone team “benefits us in so many ways, from searching for walked-off elderly persons with dementia to missing persons to escaped suspects, to using it multiple times for barricaded suspects during standoffs. It gives our critical response teams a great view of the situation.
“We have used it on lakes for drowning victims. There’s no limit to how it benefits law enforcement. Probably one of the most important resources is the thermal camera,” he said. “That works off of heat signatures. Then you are able to spot a person at night or even in the daytime just by their heat signatures in wooded areas, in different situations.”
In 2019 the drone team went to Cleveland to work on the July 2019 Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force investigation. It resulted in 40 individuals being arrested on charges related to people trying to meet up with juveniles to have sex. The drone team was directed to a location where a suspect was supposed to meet up with what they thought was a juvenile but was actually law enforcement.
At least two individuals from Youngstown were arrested in that operation, according to a news release from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
The drone team was there to keep watch as the individuals arrived in case they tried to flee, Hyshaw said.
Such operations have helped the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office build relationships with agencies around the state, she said.
“We have a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year call-out schedule. There are always two pilots on call,” she said.