ORANGE >> When police descended on Eisenhower Park in Milford recently and the area was put in lockdown because a despondent man was threatening to harm himself, the Orange Fire Department was called in to help because it had just acquired a special tool: an unmanned aerial system, a drone.

Fire Marshal Tim Smith said they flew the drone to provide overhead coverage of the 200-acre park and support for the Milford Police Department’s SWAT team.

“We were able to provide aerial support to make sure no one came out,” he said.

The Orange Fire and Police departments will share the drone.

They are among only a handful of public safety departments in the state to be trained in the cutting-edge technology and own a drone.

Smith said a drone has numerous applications in fire service.

Assistant Police Chief Anthony Cuozzo, who sees the drone as a great search and rescue tool in a place with open space such as Orange, credits the forward thinking of Police Chief Robert Gagne for bringing drone capability, including training, to the department.

Drones used professionally require a certification by the Federal Aviation Administration, as they are considered aircraft and their users are pilots.

Smith said they have to be flown around power lines, trees, roofs and airplanes.

Orange’s new drone flies up to 40 mph, has four large propellers, and is about 2 square feet. They aren’t allowed to fly more than 400 feet off the ground. It is battery operated and there is a screen on the controller, and in Orange’s case, a second screen is available on an iPad.

Growing drone use

Michael Eski, chief public safety instructor at DARTdrones, recently trained public safety officers in a class here, including fire and police personnel from departments in Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford counties.

Eski, a police officer, firefighter and EMT in Florida, said having the drone puts Orange in an elite, but growing class around the nation.

Just months ago, out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, fewer than 300 owned drones, Eski said.

“Sadly, public safety agencies are always behind,” he said. It was the same with body cameras: They were slow to take hold, and then suddenly every department wanted one.

Eski said although the benefit of a drone’s photographic application is immeasurable, it is about much more than taking pictures.

In a standoff with a suicidal man in Florida, negotiators lost touch because the man’s cellphone died, he said. Police couldn’t move in because the man was armed, so they flew a drone over to drop him a phone charger. Negotiators were able to continue talking with the man who wound up convinced not to end his life, Eski said.

Eski said a drone can be used to drop a line to a hiker who has gone off a cliff at a place such as Sleeping Giant State Park or to drop a raft with dead-on accuracy to someone stranded in the water.

“It’s actually about thinking outside the box and asking, ‘What can’t we use this for?’”

John DeCarlo, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a retired Branford police chief, agrees with Eski that the public safety field — as usual — is “playing catch-up” with technological innovations such as drones.

Drones have potential with crime scenes and other aspects of police work such as search and rescue, but they also carry a lot of liability issues, not only in terms of crashing into property or people, but also by potentially being used in ways that violate privacy rights as set forth in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, DeCarlo said.

While training and certification are rigorous, police officers and firefighters will not be using them every day, he said, so they could potentially be out of practice when an emergency hits and the operation may be affected by a stressful situation.

DeCarlo said because of those issues he’s happy to see Orange police take the lead because of the responsible leadership in Gagne and Cuozzo.

Smith said while hobbyists and videographers have been using drones for years, the cost of professional-grade drones was prohibitive until recently.

Orange paid $3,200.

BIG PLANS in orange

Smith already has big plans for its application in the fire service. According to Smith:

• It can be flown overhead during a fire to see hot spots and keep track of personnel.

“It adds a whole new dimension to scene management,” Smith said.

• It can be used to photograph the tops of buildings before a fire happens to allow for planning for tricky areas in case of fire.

• Smith is eyeing using the drone as part of routine inspections. He said it can be flown around a commercial kitchen exhaust under a roof to see if the area is clean, rather than just take the word of the business owner as is done now.

• They can use the drone measurements and photographs in fire investigations and to see how a fire progressed. Without the drone, they relied on an aerial ladder to get them to high spots.

Cuozzo said there is tremendous potential for drones to help in search and rescue operations. They hope to add infrared to the drone for night searches.

The goal is to have three officers trained as drone pilots, Cuozzo said.

Smith, who did extensive research on drones, said, “I see a lot of capability coming out of this.”