Camano Island Fire and Rescue’s newest crew member weighs 3.1 pounds and zips along at 33 mph.
This bright orange small unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly called a drone, can investigate structure fires with its thermal camera, help firefighters stay out of harm’s way and search open water or thick forests for missing people.
“It’s easy to use, and we’ll use it to save lives and keep firefighters safe,” said William Webb, a lieutenant with CIFR.
The drone, powered by four propellers and rechargeable lithium polymer batteries, was donated earlier this year. Since then, Webb and the department have been working through a list of tasks to help them use it during emergencies, including training remote pilots and writing operating procedures.
“It’s not a toy — it’s a tool,” said Webb, who has been flying remote controlled airplanes and helicopters for 35 years. “There will be a flight log, a preflight checklist, all the video taken will be reviewed and tracked.”
But getting certified with the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to be the biggest hurdle. Most hobbyists, on the other hand, are not required to become licensed by the FAA, the agency that controls national airspace, though some drones must be registered with the FAA.
Lt. Mark Norman, a volunteer CIFR firefighter who has his pilot’s license, is the only person certified to operate the drone, for now. However, others can operate it under his supervision.
During emergencies, Webb said he envisions the drone helping in a variety of ways.
For example, CIFR crews recently responded to a report of a boat just floating in the water. It was unknown whether anyone was aboard.
“We hitched up our rescue boat and got out there … in about 30 minutes,” the longtime Camano Island resident said. “We have to look in the boat and decide how to search.”
In the future, Webb said he could dispatch the drone, which has a 1.2-mile range, within mere minutes. It can climb at about 18 feet per second and boasts the option of using a 4K camera or an HD/Flir camera.
“It can look in the boat and see clues,” he said. “You can then program (the drone) to start a search grid. Or we could determine that our crews don’t need to go out there. Then they’re available to handle other emergency calls here.”
On land, fellow CIFR Lt. Chad Schmidt has seen a drone’s usefulness up close and personal during a large brush fire in the Arlington Heights area last year.
“Getchell Fire brought a drone and were able to tell us exactly where to fight the fire and where to go and which way the fire was moving,” he said. “There was too much smoke for us to see on the ground.”
In addition, CIFR’s drone — which can automatically orbit the site of an emergency without a human at the controls — comes equipped with an infrared camera capable of showing firefighters safe places to enter a structure or the best place to spray water.
“The infrared also allows us to easily find a lost person in dense forest,” Webb said. “Or it can help guide our guys doing a technical rope rescue over a cliff.”
According to a recent study by Bard College in New York, at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units acquired drones as of early 2016. More acquisitions took place in 2016 than in the previous years combined, and the pace of acquisitions shows no signs of slowing down, according to the nationwide study. Of the 347 first responder units, only 69 were fire departments.
“Flying the drone takes second seat to actually pulling hose and fighting a fire,” Webb said. “However, I see this guy helping out big time.”