7/19/17 - Akron News Reporter

In the right place at the right time. That was the exact circumstance for Dusty Birge on a hot July afternoon, nearly two weeks ago. Birge was a passing motorist after a train sparked a fire July 6 just east of Otis, and igniting several fires to nearly Platner. As crews from Akron, Otis and Yuma battled the flames, Birge approached firefighters, asking for permission to help. UAV Recon is a drone inspection service, owned and operated by Birge out of Johnstown, Colorado, providing inspections on utility transmission lines. More than just a drone hobbyist, Birge is also a certified pilot and Part 107 certified through the FAA for drone flight. To even further his credentials, Birge jumped onboard Skyfire Consulting, the leading public safety-specific sUAS company in the country, based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Skyfire Consulting helps primarily public service, law enforcement, emergency technicians, fire services and search and rescue with equipment purchasing. Agencies hire Skyfire Consulting to help pick out specific equipment for specific cases, and the company then completes and files the certificate of authorization with the FAA. All training is also done through Skyfire Consulting, which is where Birge stepped in to help. As a consultant/sub-contractor, Birge is helping Skyfire Consulting with training and sales efforts in the western half of the United States. He was brought on board because he is a manned aircraft pilot, brings experience to the table and has very nice equipment that is used for technical firefighting and surveillance.

His connections with pilots and industrial teams were an added bonus. Drone use with fire services provide obvious uses. They're also often used in search and rescue because they can cover a lot of ground and reduces time and manpower needed. People can be found in water, dark wooded areas or mountainous regions. The FAA makes it perfectly legal for a hobbyist to buy a drone and start flying it, but as soon as you start getting paid for it, you must be Part 107 certified. All drones, no matter what, must be registered with the FAA. Birge pointed out that there is no law that aircraft must ground when a fire is burning. By not compromising or not giving the right of way to manned aircraft, the drone pilot can then face possible consequences. The main point to remember is that the fire department gives the okay to fly, and Birge works under the fire department's direction. "What happened with Dusty and the Otis fire really highlights how a drone in the hands of a well-trained operator can be an amazing tool in fire service. He exhibited our mission in the flesh. It's a wonderful tool, but is the same thing as all tools in fire service - it's only effective as the person using it," Tres Crow, Chief Marketing Officer for Skyfire Consulting, said. On the day of the Otis fire, Birge was on his way back from a job site out east. Since he was equipped with his drone and thermography camera, he approached the firemen, though not without some thought. "There are so many negative connotations with drones and thermography. I always have a few hesitations, because regardless of how safe and by the book and no matter how good you are, there is still the stigma of being the "dude with the drone". People see a story on the news about a guy who grounds firefighters with a drone, and you're automatically associated with that. I only have about 10 seconds to convince the firefighters. But, they were all very nice and polite that day," Birge said. "That day of the fire, I was having some video feed problems - it just didn't make me comfortable. Of all the fires I've covered with my drone, that one was probably the least successful. There are some technologies out there that are beneficial for that type of situation, but I didn't have it with me at the time," he added. While surveilling the fire from the air, Birge saw where the fire had jumped the perimeter, but didn't have a way to tell firefighters. Instead, he had to hurry over to tell another individual, who then could notify fire crews. Had he had all of his technology, he could hand the incident commander an iPad, who could see secure live video feed and drop pins on a map and tell him where to fly, all without actually having to verbally communicate.  The thermography camera can operate in 100 percent darkness. Had it been needed, Birge also holds a nighttime operations waiver and could have kept flying into the night, as not all drone pilots have the ability to do so. Birge volunteers when he's asked, and is more than happy to help when needed. People talk about hot spots, but few actually know what that means. With the drone and thermography camera, he ultimately looks for no spots in the area. In the provided pictures, he noticed the hot spots in the middle weren't as big, because the area had already been burned. The hot spots on the edge had the potential to flare back up and burn new ground. When Birge started working for Skyfire Consulting, he told them he's from rural Nebraska (Benkelman) and there are no big fire departments out in the area. They don't have the budgets that big departments do. Birge envisions several departments going together on the equipment, and says there's funding out there that could help cover some, if not all, of the cost. It's not all just a drone program, but can be used and not have to put a drone into the air. All trucks could be interconnected together and see everything. The program could also connect every firetruck driver's cell phone, which would pin back to the incident commander's iPad, serving as a way to keep tabs on each truck on scene. The possibilities with drone and thermography camera use are nearly endless. "People ask why I want to go on a platform for the camera and drone and why I volunteer to put $20,000 of equipment into the air. Drone technology isn't about finding and spying on people who don't want to be found. Instead, it's about using it to find people who do want to be found," he finished. For more on UAV Recon and Skyfire Consulting, visit uav-recon.com and skyfireconsulting.com.