Tech savvy has taken over at various Grand Strand law enforcement agencies, and gadgets are helping police catch criminals, firefighters and investigators get better views, and aiding the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in resolving cases.
The first phase of the city of Myrtle Beach’s project to install static license plate readers at key intersections was completed in early summer.
Nearly 20 readers are now operating at some city entrances, recording vehicles that enter and exit the city.
Myrtle Beach police asked the city for funding earlier this year to purchase some of the cameras officers said were needed at a time when the department was struggling to fill vacancies.
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The fixed license plate readers snap a photo of every passing car, recording the tag, date, time and GPS location of vehicles entering or exiting the city to help officers locate vehicles associated with criminal cases.
Lt. Joey Crosby of the Myrtle Beach Police Department said they plan to install more of the license plate readers as funding permits.
“There are multiple phases that we’re looking at, but it’s all dependent on the funding of each phase,” he said.
Readers stationed at key entrances to the city alert officers when criminals enter Myrtle Beach where a surveillance network of more than 800 other cameras help officers track suspects, capture evidence, solve cases and deter crimes.
The multi-phase project to install about 800 cameras in 200 locations across Myrtle Beach got underway last year.
Crosby says the project is now complete.
“The only thing we’re doing is some final touches,” he said, to clear up connectivity issues with some of the new cameras on the north end and to make sure the cameras are streaming at all times.
Regular maintenance will also be needed to make sure cameras are transmitting signals back to the department’s main database and that trees and shrubbery aren’t obstructing the cameras’ views, he said.
“We rely on that sort of stuff in almost every case,” said Solicitor Jimmy Richardson about the city’s technology.
He said the fairly new cameras and other devices have become useful tools for his office.
“Certainly, we’ve relied on them [cameras] to solve several cases or to at least corroborate information,” said Richardson.
The Myrtle Beach Police Department has also purchased new camera equipment to aid the force in the production of videos used on social media to help officers solve crimes and spread public service announcements.
Other new tech tools to help the modern-day Myrtle Beach crime fighter include a new sonar system, to assist in the search for missing swimmers, and a new howler siren system. The howler deploys a low-frequency siren in tandem with a normal siren to help people hear and even feel when emergency vehicles are approaching.
Each one of the department’s new technological tools “helps us in very individual ways,” Crosby said.
“Certainly the social media aspect with the videos and the camera they help us get the message out about crime happening in our community.”
Cameras also help the department capture evidence in criminal activities and assist the force in traffic control techniques, he said. And the mere presence of the cameras could serve as crime deterrents, he added.
“I think the technology we have received and implemented has enhanced our agency and have proven to be a vital tool,” Crosby said.
The department is also still working to get the necessary FAA permits to use a drone as an extra eye in the sky to aid in policing large events.
“We are still in the permitting phase of the drone project,” Crosby said. “We’re nearing completion of that and we’re excited about that.”
After a lengthy paperwork process to become certified through the FAA, Horry County Fire Rescue has its drone up and running, giving rescue crews a bird’s eye view at incidents and investigations, said Captain Matt Rice, who is a leader on the program.
“We’re putting an eye in the sky. It’s giving our incident commanders a completely different view of the incident,” said Rice who stated the department got its official certification in early June.
The department has deployed the drone for several incidents and investigations already, including a Conway-area church fire back in July.
The drone can be quickly launched, soaring up to a maximum of 400 feet, giving commanders the ability to make fast adjustments in extinguishing fires or more in depth views during investigations.
So far about half a dozen people with the department are able to pilot it, Rice said.
Now, the possibility of getting a second drone is on the table.
“We are starting to look at and price out the possibility of purchasing a second one and adding it to our fleet for deployment purposes,” said Rice.
HCFR officials have also just recently begun talks with the Horry County Information Technology department, who has recently purchased a drone as well, Rice said, and the two groups have just begun to explore the idea of streamlining their programs so efforts and data storage aren’t duplicated.
“We’re trying to set goals where the programs could work together toward a common goal to benefit everyone in the county,” said Rice.
Other fairly new technology includes new sonar equipment for the HCFR dive team that will replace an older model, said Rice, along with a new boat coming around the end of October, he said.
Captain Jerry Howerton with Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire said they have two drones that are ready to take flight.
MIGCF officials started the lengthy FAA paperwork process for certification in the fall last year, and were officially able to fly around May of this year, Howerton said.
“We do have all of our FAA credentials. We’re happy to say that we’ve got that up and running,” said Howerton.
Their program suffered a setback when a drone was destroyed during a car crash last spring, but it was replaced through insurance and a second drone was also acquired, Howerton said.
The department has two DJI Phantom Pro models, which is the same model HCFR has, Howerton said.
One drone is kept at one of the station houses and the other rides along with Howerton in his work vehicle. Howerton’s drone is set for more in depth searches while the other can be used to quickly survey an area, and nearly a dozen people are trained to pilot it, he said.
Howerton’s drone comes with a set of virtual reality goggles, which allows him to direct the drone’s movements with the turn of his head, he said.
The department’s other drone has a “payload capability” which allows it to carry and drop a life ring to a swimmer in distress, or cart out other items such as bottles of water or radios, Howerton said.
While the drones are ready for work, they haven’t been deployed at any incidents yet. Howerton said they were going to be used for a reported swimmer in distress during Tropical Storm Hermine, but high winds kept them grounded.
“They are both very much in service,” said Howerton of the drones.
Next, the department is in the early stages of exploring the idea of getting forward looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, which are heat sensing and would make nighttime searches and looking for hot spots at fires easier.
However, Howerton said the items are still somewhat pricey, so acquiring them isn’t likely to happen in the near future.
While the FLIR cameras are on the department’s wish list, they have an assortment of tech tools and capabilities and are able to streamline many of their devices, which are tied to Apple products, Howerton said.
“Everything has gone digital here,” he said.
North Myrtle Beach also has extra eyes watching the streets. In early 2016, the city purchased 85 body-worn cameras and added them to all their patrolling officers, according to Pat Dowling, North Myrtle Beach city spokesman.
Dowling said officials were waiting for L3, which is same company that provided them with in-car camera systems, to provide them with model that could meet their needs.
Some North Myrtle Beach patrol cars also recently received in-car laptops, Dowling said.
But the city has no plans to add surveillance cameras or drones.
“While we are well aware that utilizing additional technology is the direction law enforcement is heading in, at this point in time we have other more pressing priorities for our particular city, such as, financing enhancements to our road paving program, securing land for and constructing additional near-ocean public parking areas, beach renourishment, additional ocean outfalls, etc.,” said Dowling via email.
“Fortunately, at this time in our development we are not an urbanized city and do not have the same crime problems that more urbanized cities might experience,” he said.
Conway officials installed more than two dozen cameras around some of the River City’s attractions last year, and plans to add four more are in the works, said Lt. Selena Small with Conway police. Horry County officials had cameras installed at various boat landings around the county last year, but don’t have current plans to add more on the immediate horizon.