Drones newest tool in firefighting arsenal

3/15/16 - The Journal Gazette

A buzzing filled the air as the little white plastic drone lifted off, all four of its propellers whirring. Lt. Troy Wymer sent it zooming off across a grassy field, a tiny spectator looking down over the geese below.

In the future, Wymer is hoping to use the unmanned aircraft in less picturesque settings – supporting Wayne Township firefighters in all kinds of situations, from hazardous material spills to search-and-rescue operations.

Wymer is one of seven Wayne Township firefighters who were trained to fly the department’s two new drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles. Capt. Mike Pruitt, the department’s spokesman, said Wayne Township is the first fire department in Indiana to use drones.

"I think back to hundreds of runs that it would have been so nice to have eyes on the top of the situation," Pruitt said.

"Beforehand we either had to use a helicopter or get up in an aerial truck."

For example, if a large building is on fire, the incident commander sitting in a truck can only see one side of the building, Pruitt said. With a drone, he or she could also see the other three sides, providing a better understanding of the situation.

And fewer firefighters would be put in danger if using a drone to investigate the extent of the blaze.

But the drones, which are about a square foot in size, are not a replacement, he said, for helicopters or on-the-ground manpower. They will mostly be used to gather information and report back in real time.

"One of the things that’s most important for first responders is situational awareness," Wymer said. "Instead of a manpower-intensive operation, we can use something like this."

Another benefit is that the drones can be airborne within five minutes. Compare that with the time it would take to get a helicopter or even put on a hazmat suit.

Pruitt said the Wayne Township Fire Department first started thinking about using drones in April when they met representatives of SkyFire Consulting at a conference in Georgia.

SkyFire provides full-service consulting to fire departments looking to integrate drones into their procedures, from the drones themselves to handling the certification paperwork through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Each drone costs about $2,000. Overall, the entire project cost the fire department about $10,000, Pruitt said, including three days of training for the firefighters.

Drones and firefighters have been in the news recently as wildfires rage on the West Coast, but many of the stories are about privately operated drones interfering with aerial firefighting operations.

"There’s a lot of controversy right now, but safety is our No. 1 priority," Pruitt said.

And the pilots will be fully trained. The department must obtain a certificate of authority from the FAA to fly the drones, have written guidelines of how the drones are to be used and ensure drone pilots have passed the private pilot written test in addition to field training in operating the unmanned aircraft.

Eventually, the FAA will make a site visit to ensure the pilots are fully capable, Pruitt said.

After the pilots are fully certified and the drones are integrated into daily operations, Pruitt said the fire department is planning to share the use of the technology with other law enforcement agencies.

Eventually, they may buy more drones.