Drones help law enforcement agencies monitor ice conditions, perform search and rescue missions

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FOND DU LAC, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Thousands are expected to be on Lake Winnebago over the next few weeks for ice fishing and sturgeon spearing, and the Fond du Lac County Sheriff's Office wants to remind folks to be safe and alert when on frozen bodies of water.

"We do have reports, pretty routinely this time of year, of people breaking through the ice," said Fond du Lac County Sheriff Ryan Waldschmidt. "No ice is ever a hundred percent safe."

A scary example of that warning took place Saturday afternoon when a Fond du Lac man broke through the ice about a half mile north of Frazer Point at Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac.

"The pickup truck ended up on the bottom of Lake Winnebago, completely submerged, but thankfully he was able to get out," Sheriff Waldschmidt said. "Other than being very cold and wet from the waist down, he survived with no other injuries."

The incident was the first major breakthrough reported on Lake Winnebago this year. DNR Conservation Warden William Hankee says the number of incidents that authorities will have to respond to varies from year to year.

"It really is condition dependent. Hopefully we have as few, or zero incidents," Warden Hankee said. "Check the local ice conditions, check with the fishing clubs. They'll give reports. Stay in areas that are known to be safe, rather than venturing into areas where there's a spring or a river or stream inlet. Generally, it's going to be a poor judgement decision. Just taking risks that we don't need to do. That's probably the biggest factor that we see out there."

The driver that broke through Saturday afternoon was attempting to cross a crack in the ice that Sheriff Waldschmidt says stretches from Lakeside Park all the way to Winnebago County. It's one of the largest cracks spotted on the lake in decades. The sheriff's office used drone technology after the incident to monitor the ice conditions. The drone has a camera attached to it that allows the department to take photos and videos from the sky at any time using infrared, thermal technology.

"We flew the drone after the incident," Sheriff Waldschmidt explained. "You can clearly see where this crack runs and you can easily see the heat signature of the water under the ice, where the ice is very thin or even where there's open water."

Along with using the drone to monitor ice conditions, the sheriff says the drones can be used for all types of situations including search and rescue, missing persons cases, helping locate hot spots during fires and even locating people that attempt to run from traffic stops. Over the last two years, the drone team at the Fond du Lac office has continued to grow.

"When we started our drone team, we started with two drones and six operators, six pilots, and we're already up to nine pilots now and three drones," explained Sheriff Waldschmidt. "We're using it in ways we never even imagined. We have the ability, with nine pilots, to generally have somebody on that's a pilot 24/7, 365. That drone can be deployed for not just ice or water rescue conditions, but all kinds of different circumstances."

According to the sheriff, more departments across the state are starting to purchase drones to help enhance the services that they can provide the public.

"That's a gamechanger for us. It's definitely a great enhancement," Sheriff Waldschmidt said. "The drone technology continues to evolve and it's changing and getting better every year."

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