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Drones go to work at fire scenes

May 21, 2018 GMT

Drones, more properly called “quadcopters” or “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), are starting to make inroads into the world of firefighting.

They are what the military calls a “force multiplier,” which is something that dramatically increases the effectiveness of a force.

UAVs seem to fit that definition, as they are an inexpensive way to gather critical information, using just one person, the operator.

Fire departments around the nation are starting to look into buying a UAV, often equipped with an infrared camera, which can peer through the thickest smoke.

Because Prescott Fire Department’s response area includes mountain terrain right in town, as well as the usual city firefighting challenges, Division Chief Don Devendorf said the agency sees potential for multiple uses.

“They have great use in locating lost and injured campers and hikers in areas with poor GPS ability due to terrain,” he said. “As technology and payload increase, we would also have the availability of delivering a phone, a radio, water, or first aid supplies, to people that needed it in advance of us being able to reach them.”

In town, a payload consisting of a thermal-imaging camera would be helpful, Devendorf added.

“We would be able to look for hotspots in structures, especially from the roof, with much greater value and large commercial buildings,” he said.

“The infrared cameras would allow us to search for people based on body heat, so we wouldn’t need light in order to see people.”

Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority Chief Scott Freitag said the agency is giving the technology consideration as well.

“We are looking at the possibility of purchasing a drone. The intent is more for search and rescue, but it can be used to get good aerial views of larger structure fires, or the early stages of a wildland event,” he said.

“In conditions as we are seeing now – high winds and dry – it could be used during a house fire to monitor conditions further away checking for spot grass fires caused by embers being blown,” he added.

Proof, at least in this area, may well have been the sawmill fire near Ash Fork in October 2017.

Hampered by thick, black smoke, firefighters could not see the hotspots they needed to extinguish, and, worse, some of the fire was burning under the surface of the ground.

Yavapai County’s emergency manager at the time, Denny Foulk, called Matt Mintzmyer for help. Mintzmyer is an instructor in the UAV program at Yavapai College.

At first, he said, some of the fire officials didn’t seem very interested in what a quadcopter could do.

Then he showed them how it could fly right over the scene, at 200 feet, and send back live video from the infrared camera. It could see the hot spots clearly.

“What you had in the Sawmill Fire that was really unique,” Foulk said, “was that the fire was burning subsurface, and that created a potentially dangerous situation. Somebody could be walking on the surface and not know there was a huge hotspot underneath, and fall through.

Foulk is a proponent of using the quadcopters in specific situations.

“Under certain circumstances, those tools are very appropriate,” he said.

Devendorf agreed.

“All in all, really cool stuff could be possible for fire and EMS using drones,” he said.