Drone acquisition gives fire department high-tech tool
PENDLETON — It’s small, but it packs a punch when it comes to new tools in the firefighters’ toolbox.
Weighing in at about 2 pounds, the Pendleton-Fall Creek Township Fire Department’s new drone offers the agency new response capabilities for a range of situations.
“It’ll help us with search and rescue with people, it’ll help us with fires; another thing that it will help us with is hazardous materials runs,” said Bill Davisson, a volunteer firefighter with the department who spearheaded the drone acquisition.
Davisson, one of the department’s three licensed drone pilots, sought and obtained a grant from South Madison Community Foundation to buy the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced drone. It’s not a drone a typical hobbyist would buy.
“One of the great benefits of it is it’s got a great thermal imaging camera, which means we can fly it at night and we can fly it at fires, and locate — if the fire is in the attic but it hasn’t come through the attic and we have to cut holes, you know, to ventilate — we can identify where the fire is in the attic without cutting a lot of holes.
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“It’s also safety for the firefighters, because when they’re on the roof, we don’t want them directly over where the fire is, because they can’t see it. Especially on commercial buildings where they have flat roofs. We can locate exactly where the fire is at and send them in that direction.”
The uses for the drone are many, and people can keep finding new applications for it, Davisson said.
One common factor in many of those uses is the amount of time it can save first responders in certain situations.
When arriving at a fire, instead of walking around the structure to case the situation, the drone can be up in the air in a couple of minutes, beaming a live view of the scene — photos and video, both regular visual format and thermal (where the hot areas appear red), simultaneously — to a variety of devices anywhere in the world.
“We can actually transmit those live on Zoom, Facetime, YouTube — I’ve got it all set up to do all that,” Davisson said. “I’ve also got it to do local, so it’ll go live to an iPad. So, if the chief has an iPad or computer screen, if it’s a long scene where we’re out there for hours, we can have it transmitting to a laptop or a big screen, and they can watch it from a command area while we’re flying 2 miles away.”
It also has the potential to dramatically improve the response time of hazardous materials calls, such as an overturned tanker or rail car that’s leaking, he said.
The usual response would be to call out the Madison County hazardous material team, which has members across the county, Davisson said. That team would then assemble at a location, get its gear on, send a couple of people to the site to assess the situation and then come up with an action plan.
“With the drone, we don’t have all that — and we’re talking half an hour, hour — all this setup stuff,” Davisson said. “With the drone, we can call for the haz-mat team, I can fly (the drone) out to the railroad car, I can identify off the placard right away what the material is, I can find where the leak is, hopefully, with the camera, because it’s got 32 zoom, and I can just zoom in … I can videotape that, take pictures of it, bring it back, and once the haz-mat team arrives, I can show them what they have. This is what we’ve got, this is what you need to do.
“We can gather a lot of information before they even get to the scene. So that is a huge time-saver.”
In water rescues, the drone can drop a self-inflating life vest to a person in the water or fly out a safety line to them.
Ultimately, the drone can save lives, Davisson said.
Fire Chief Chris Nodine, who is in the process of becoming the department’s fourth licensed drone pilot, said the device is a “valuable tool” considering its many capabilities.
He mentioned the search and rescue potential, including its ability to search large areas to find people, such as children with autism who have wandered from home, as well as the ability to locate the source of a fire in large commercial buildings.
Nodine and Davisson both wanted to make sure the community foundation got credit for the purchase, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Tammy Bowman, executive director of the foundation, said her board of directors enthusiastically approved the grant request.
“This is one they were impressed with — and this rarely happens, but they funded more than 100% of what they asked for.”
The fire department requested $7,087 for the drone, but the board approved $8,237, which included costs for insurance and training.
She said the foundation approved $10,000 years ago for a thermal imaging camera alone, so that with the added drone capability, “as far as value, it was the right time to buy this technology.”
The grant was approved in March. The drone was purchased this summer. Davisson and the two other department pilots — firefighters Jeff Moore and Frank Ricketts — have attended training sessions.
The drone has been used locally about half a dozen times, including for search and rescue and at a couple of fires, Davisson said.
The department also has assisted other agencies, including Markleville Fire Department for storm damage assessment and Pendleton Police Department to search for a wanted person.
“If we’d had it for the tornado in Pendleton, it definitely would have been used for the insurance — there were a lot of grants that came from that, and a lot of stuff with the government — and it definitely could be used to help assess how much damage there was. It would have been used extensively in that situation. When you’ve got a big area like that. That night, we were out — I was out all night. We were going door to door. With the drone, we could identify places we really need to go to first, and prioritize triage.
“Same thing, if we get, you know, out on the interstate when the weather turns bad, sometimes we have multiple car wrecks … it can be used to kind of triage the situation, and see which wreck was the worst and where to start.”
Bowman said Davisson will demonstrate the drone at the community foundation’s board meeting today, Sept. 30.