Field Notes From Oso
7:04 am
Fri April 4, 2014

Landslide Recovery Specialist Hopes To Use Drones In Future Rescue Operations

Stacy Noland deployed to Oso, Wash., with the Global Disaster Innovation Group Field Innovation Team three days after the fatal landslide there. Noland has worked in rescue and recovery operations following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2011 Joplin tornado, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. His role at the debris pile was to figure out how to make rescue and recovery most efficient. We asked what he has learned so far.

Phyllis Fletcher: What’s something you wanted to try that you didn’t get to?

Stacy Noland: One of the things I wanted to try and do was to create a 3D model of the entire debris zone so that rescue workers could have a good idea as to (a) where the debris was, and (b) where the river was moving.

Knowing if more of the hillside could slide and affect rescue workers is important. And also being able to provide a 3D model of the slide so that families can look at that slide and say, “Hey, you know, my sister, my uncle, my dad’s house was here,” you know, and to start mapping out, “OK, where in the slide could their house be?”

Our challenge was to put unmanned aerial systems into the air. And in Washington state that’s not necessarily a legal thing. (Update: Washington Governor Jay Inslee vetoed a bill Friday that would have regulated government use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, due to his concerns about privacy and transparency. He said he would still allow their use in emergencies.)

Rescue and recovery operations specialists sought permission to fly unmanned aircraft like the Precision Hawk over the Oso debris field to search for cell signals and heartbeats.
Credit Stacy Noland

We were working with a team of people who can put swappable devices on unmanned aerial systems. You put in a camera to take video or photos; you take off the camera. You put in a device that can actually detect cell phone signals, or detect heartbeats. Again, these are swappable technologies.

We received local permission to do it. They wanted us to do it. And we worked all up and down the food chain and we were not given the permission to actually do that. And that’s a learning process for us. We learned what obstacles we may have to overcome during the next disaster. 

So just think about what may have been able to happen if the mudslide happens on a Saturday, and then within 12, 18, 24 hours we can send some of these devices into the air flying over the site that can identify different cell phone signals. That would make it easier to get personnel on top of these individuals much faster and potentially save lives and pets and things of that nature.

Fletcher: We heard a lot about how useful dogs were. What’s your idea about helping dogs be more efficient?

Kent Stuart and Mako of Pacific Crest Search and Rescue of Skamania County at the debris pile in Oso.
Credit Courtesy Stacy Noland

Noland: Those K-9 units were amazing. When those dogs hit on a scent they barked and they started digging like nobody’s business and you couldn’t stop them. Once they had their mind set on finding somebody, they dug, and they dug, and they dug, and they dug, and they worked themselves into exhaustion.

It was amazing to see dogs actually having to receive fluids via IV because they would not stop long enough to drink. And partially, too, you didn’t want the dogs drinking the water in there because the water is full of household waste and things of that nature. So you didn’t want the dogs drinking that water anyway.

When I was in the debris field I talked to some of the K-9 unit leaders and I was like, “Hey, what could be done to better-train your K-9s?”

And one of the guys said, “If people were to donate teeth or placentas or blood, so that we can use those materials and then place them out in various areas, we can train our dogs to identify humans more efficiently and more effectively.”

And that was one of the things I never knew until I was standing there in the debris field watching all this stuff happen.

Fletcher: If people want to help, what should they do?

Noland: My personal opinion is to find an individual family or two and give directly to those individual families. All sorts of organizations pop up here and there. And, yeah, you’re going to give them your $10.

But the question is, “How much is that money actually getting into the hands of people who really need it?”

So what I always recommend is find a family, so you write that check to him or to her, and give it to him and give it to her, and say, “I want to give it to this person and nobody else.” That’s the way in my opinion you can get the greatest amount of return on your investment.