Stranded hikers might soon be rescued by a very different kind of first responder.
The Northwest Fire District is now working with two drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles). These eyes-in-the-sky offer fire crews many benefits, and they’re still finding more.
“It’s an evolving technology,” said Northwest Fire Deputy Chief and drone specialist Mike Rollman. “Fire departments across the country are now working with them. And we’re exploring all the different applications.”
For instance, Northwest Fire recently received a call about hazardous materials that had caught fire. The chemicals involved created translucent heat that was very difficult to see for the naked eye. In these situations, Northwest Fire responders typically use a handheld infrared camera, but this still requires responders to get near the source of the burning.
“We couldn’t even see the heat being produced from this chemical reaction,” Rollman said. “It had the potential to be a dangerous situation.”
But their drones, which have built-in infrared cameras, can spot heat sources from the air, while the pilots remain in safety. These drones also prove useful during more standard situations, like wildfires.
“Getting reconnaissance on fires is very important, because wildfires are much more spread out than structural fires,” Rollman said. “This allows us to get a better understanding of the situation.”
Not only can the aerial drones spot the shape and direction of wildfires much easier than workers on the ground, but their infrared cameras are able to identify hot spots that remain after the initial fire which need to be extinguished. Not only can the infrared cameras see hot spots, but their vision can penetrate through smoke in a way helicopter crews can’t.
Northwest Fire owns two drones: a consumer-grade Mavic Pro, and a professional-grade Matrice 210 drone. The latter comes equipped with a 30x power optical zoom, great for spotting lost or stranded individuals. All members of Northwest Fire who operate the drones are required to have a pilot’s license, in particular the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 drone certification.
“We do keep up pretty good tabs on the licenses and laws,” Rollman said. “We want to make sure we’re up to date on all the new rules.”
Northwest Fire is currently exploring uses for the drone beyond reconnaissance. In preparation for the upcoming monsoon, they’re exploring drone payload options. This includes either having the drone deliver a flotation device for water rescues, or having the drone deliver water to stranded hikers. While neither of these payload uses are ready yet, Rollman said they are certainly looking into it.
Drones for fire departments are becoming increasingly common across the US. Since at least 2013’s Rim Fire, firefighters in California have used drones to map and observe large-scale wildfires. Fire drones are also being developed as their own product category for department purchases.
“We knew the drones could provide a benefit to us,” Rollman said. “They naturally benefit how we work. It’s the future.”