Drone saves kayakers during Spring Lake Water Rescues

SPRING LAKE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Authorities in the Sandhills are dealing with a rise in river rescues.

The Spring Lake Fire Department rescued several stranded kayakers from the Little River over the past few days, deploying their new drone for extra support.

It sounds peaceful and size-wise, the Little River lives up to its name, but lately, it's been the source of a big safety issue in Spring Lake.

"It's changed and I think the Hurricane really affected it with the water being so high and all of the rain that we recently got," said Alex Tracey.

Tracey runs Spring Lake Outpost, a local river adventure company along the banks. Despite mandatory safety briefings, lessons and daily water checks, kayakers capsize and have to be rescued.

"I think what happens is people might not be experienced in the water and I think they just get nervous and scared," said Tracey.

Over the weekend, the Spring Lake Fire Department rescued seven people in two separate incidents. Firefighters deployed their boat, working all Monday morning to pull a family of five from the river.

But another water rescue took minutes, thanks to the fire department's new drone.

"These drones can fly a lot faster than walking though woods and going down to the river in a boat so just making eye contact and putting a visual image on somebody is key to this," said Drone Pilot Brandon Fitzhugh.

On Sunday, Fitzhugh spotted the stranded kayak and guided lifeboats to a missing woman.

"We had a lady stranded on a branch. The boat and I actually met at the same time," said Fitzhugh.

The fire department has only had the drone for a few months, but they're already looking at additional technology.

"We're going to be able to drop PFD's, radios and anything they need, flashlights and with this one, we're going to start a thermal camera to do nighttime operations," said Fitzhugh.

The extra gear will cost an extra $2,500 hundred but the lives they save are priceless.

"I can always put eyes on a target and find exactly where it is so somebody can get to them and try to make the save because what's at stake? Life..Life is always at stake," said Fitzhugh.
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