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Helicopter's thermal imaging helps save a young autistic girl lost in a Florida swamp

“I just love how the deputy greeted her. What a beautiful ending. You guys are the best!”

florida, autism, thermal imaging

A deputy locates a missing girl in a Florida swamp.

A 5-year-old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) wandered off into a swamp near Tampa, Florida, around 5:00 pm on Monday, February 26. The good news is that the girl was saved in about an hour thanks to the work of some brave sheriff’s officers and their incredible thermal technology.

The girl wandered from her home and was quickly reported missing by her family to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff quickly dispatched its aviation unit that used thermal imaging technology to scan the nearby swamplands to try to find the young girl before nightfall.

Thermal imaging technology captures images based on the heat emitted by objects, allowing us to see temperature differences even in the dark, making it super handy for night vision and heat detection. The thermal technology helped the officers quickly identify the girl from high above the trees.


"Hey, I think I got her in the woods," a deputy in the helicopter told deputies on the ground. "She might be able to hear her name if you call her. She might be about 80 feet in front of you."

When the deputy on the ground spotted the girl, she lifted her arms and walked toward him. He picked her up and brought her to safety. "Let's get you out of the water. I'll get you to everyone," he told her as they walked out of the swamp.

The sheriff’s department said it was all in a day’s work for the deputies. "Their quick action saved the day, turning a potential tragedy into a hopeful reunion," it said in a statement. "Their dedication shows what service and protection are all about here at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office."

The Sheriff’s Office shared a video of the rescue on its Facebook page and people loved how the deputy greeted the girl, who must have been extremely scared. “I love how happy they were when they found her—they made it seem normal and a good time, keeping her calm. Well done!” Jan Murray wrote. “I just love how the deputy greeted her. What a beautiful ending. You guys are the best!” Sandy Schlabaugh-Kmentt added.

florida, autism, thermal imaging

Young girl lost in a swamp safely in police custody.

via WPBF 25/YouTube

Crime and safety analyst explained how the thermal technology works to News4Jax in Jacksonville, Florida. “It is a piece of equipment that actually will lock on to that heat signature,” Hackney said. “So no matter where that helicopter is moving, trying to orbit a certain area to look for the missing child, once it picks up on that heat signature and identifies it, it doesn’t lose it. So the units on the ground are able to move in like you saw.”

It is common for children with ASD to wander off from their caregivers or secure locations. The behavior is known as eloping. Children with ASD elope for a wide variety of reasons. Loud, frantic situations such as a child’s birthday party may be too stressful for a child with ASD, so they may leave the event unaccompanied to get to somewhere more calm. Others may elope because they enjoy the thrill of being chased by a parent or caregiver, even though it may unknowingly place them into a dangerous situation.

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