When Paige Fitzgerald took over Delaware Emergency Management Agency's drone program in 2016, she had never touched an unmanned aircraft.
But being the go-getter that she is, she embraced her new role as DEMA drone program manager and jumped in headfirst.
The drone program was introduced by Fitzgerald's predecessor, an Air Force veteran and drone hobbyist. He was able to find practical uses for drones within the agency, and won great support for his initiatives.
"Then he got a job offer to go back to the Air Force," Fitzgerald said. "We split up all of his responsibilities, and in my column was the drone program. I got kicked into the deep end really, really quickly."
Luckily, Fitzgerald's new responsibilities coincided with the introduction of the statewide drone training program, so she quickly got a crash course on drone laws, air space regulations and weather, everything required to pass the Federal Aviation Administration's unmanned pilot certification test.
Knowing everything you need to know about drones is one thing, but flying an unmanned aircraft is completely different, and that became quite apparent for Fitzgerald.
"You can actually go take your test and pass it and never have touched a drone," she said. "It's like getting a driver's license never having driven a car."
The state realized it too. After setting up a class to train state employees and emergency personnel for the test, it also established a class to actually teach people how to fly drones.
Fitzgerald said they worked with Virginia-based UIS Academy to teach state employees, like Fitzgerald, how to be instructors. She said the goal is for all state employees and emergency responders to speak the same language and approach a mission the same way.
Fitzgerald has been a member of the state's statewide training and certification committee, working with representatives from other participating state agencies to develop a uniform approach to drones. The state program now includes DEMA, the Department of Transportation, Delaware State Police, Wilmington Police, Ocean View Police, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Department of Correction and the Delaware Fire School.
"All pilots [in the state program] are taught to fly the same maneuvers in the same way on the same aircraft so we can all work together seamlessly, regardless of agency, when we meet up in the field," she said.
Other states have taken notice of Delaware's collaborative effort. Fitzgerald says she's been contacted by people in many other states about setting up a similar program.
"Delaware is ahead of the curve," she said. "Our program is well respected. We get calls from all over the country for guidance. Everybody is really interested in the fact that we've been able to go across agencies."
One of the main goals of the program, she said, is to provide any agency with support not available on the ground.
Drones were an important element in two high-profile incidents last year – the prison riot at Vaughn Correctional in Smyrna and the tragic killing of Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen Ballard in Middletown.
"Just providing aerial support so the command post can constantly have eyes on what's going on there," she said.
For fire departments, she said, drones can be an important tool in extinguishing the fire faster. She said some drone cameras can be equipped with infrared capabilities that show the hottest parts of a fire.
"Where [aircraft] is usually blinded by smoke, the drone isn't because it's just looking at the heat," she said. "So [firefighters] can see a lot of stuff from the air with those instruments that they wouldn't be able to without drones."
Part of what makes the collaboration so important for the state, she said, is the cost savings realized. She said drones are capable of completing tasks that would otherwise take twice the time and more manpower.
"After winter storm Jonas, we had damage along trails that we couldn't see," she said. "We couldn't walk out to it, and we couldn't get Gators out there either. But we were able to get a drone up and over what we needed to see, and we could assess damage that way."
If the Delaware coastline were seriously damaged by a hurricane or nor'easter, she said, drones again could come in very handy.
"In the time it would take us to get four people, three Gators and regular photography equipment [out to a site], we can stand on the beach and send a drone down to map the entire coastline and see the damage and see where the dunes are breached," she said.
"We could do that in 20 minutes for an eighth of the cost."
All state employees who are certified to fly drones must train at least three times every three months in order to stay sharp.
Although Fitzgerald's primary job is to be DEMA's supervisor for terrorism preparedness, she said, the drone aspect is rewarding and fun.
"It's been the best experience," she said.
"It was definitely a challenge to get up to speed as not just a respectable UAS operator, but also an effective flight program manager, but my mentors have enthusiastically shared so much knowledge with me, and it's taken my career in a direction I never imagined. I can talk drone all day every day, so that's been a lot of fun. I'm also really enjoying watching our agency program grow as our DEMA pilots continue to increase their skills and confidence and find new applications for the technology every day. I really do have the best job ever."
As for her primary job, Fitzgerald works with multiple state and local agencies to assess risk, identify potential hazards, and quantify prevention and response capability across the state. She then strategically buys down that risk and increases capability through targeted equipment, training, and exercise purchases.
"We fund a wide variety of projects, from avian influenza planning, to public outreach programs that increase community preparedness, to active-shooter response training for our first responders," she said. "It's the best job ever, and I get to work with some really amazing people who make us all safer in ways I never would have thought about before I took this job."
A 2003 Cape grad, Fitzgerald has been a Cape Region resident her entire life. Her father, Keith Fitzgerald, is the owner of the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth, while her mother is a retired teacher.
Before jumping into the government sector, Fitzgerald took her love of music seriously. While in middle school, she played alongside several other classmates in a band called the Channel Surfers. Her first paying job was a weekly gig at Roadsters in Lewes.
"We were together for two or three years," she said. "We played at the Bandstand, the Bottle and Cork, all over the place. I had a really good time."
She toyed with the idea of going to school for music, but decided to go in a completely different direction. She graduated from the University of Delaware. Music is still part of her life. She can play saxophone, guitar, violin, flute and piano at a passable level, as well as other instruments she says she plays badly.
Fitzgerald lives in the area with her children Ebin, 10, and Dylan, 7.
EYE IN THE SKY
• Drones were an important element in two high-profile incidents last year – the prison riot at Vaughn Correctional in Smyrna and the tragic killing of Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen Ballard in Middletown.
• For fire departments, drones can be an important tool in extinguising the fire faster. Fitzgerald said some drone cameras can be equipped with infrared capabilities that show the hottest parts of a fire.
“Where [aircraft] is usually blinded by smoke, the drone isn’t because it’s just looking at the heat,” she said. “So [firefighters] can see a lot of stuff from the air with those instruments that they wouldn’t be able to without drones.”