Jeff Clementi has heard the questions before, as he carries the suitcase-sized box and sets it on the ground, beginning to pull out one piece after another.

“I've had hazmat teams look at me and say, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” he said.

Clementi, the drone operator for the Rutherford County EMA special operations team, got to prove the device’s worth in December 2016, when a dangerous scene unfolded on I-24.

A plume of chemical smoke filled the air following a crash between two tractor trailers.

Knowing getting close to the crash could be dangerous to his fellow first responders, Clementi launched the drone.

Video from the aircraft showed a detailed view of what awaited emergency responders.

“I could see what was burning, how fast it was burning, we saw where the plumes were going, what it was affecting,” Clementi said.

The abilities of the drone were once again tested in a training exercise last week on the Stones River at the East Fork Recreation Area.

The challenge: What could the drone do if a kayaker was trapped and needed rescuing?

As EMA crews rushed to the overturned kayak with the dummy of a victim laying in the water, Clementi flew the drone ahead.

While it was just a training exercise, the pressure was real because of the dangers emergency responders face on the water.

“Especially in swift water. Swift water is so dangerous,” said Dallas McLemore with Rutherford County Special Operations.

Clementi’s drone arrived first, quickly locating the staged kayak, even flying close enough above the water to see details of the fake victim in the water.

Clementi said the drone could capture even more if the victim was real and it was at night.

“It does have the ability to take a thermal imaging sensor, so we can see at night with it. It does have a z30 camera on it so it has 30 times optical zoom, so we have the ability to identify somebody from the air,” Clementi said.

When the emergency responders arrived, they already knew what to expect, quickly pulling the dummy from the water.

The drill a success, with a little help from above.

Copyright 2018 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

Chief Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Finley is the News4 I-Team's Chief Investigative Reporter. He has won multiple Midsouth Emmy and Edward R. Murrow Awards.

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