Using drones to monitor flames
Taking to the sky to assist with fire control
Photo courtesy Snohomish County Fire District No. 22
Getchell Fire Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Stocker demonstrates the department’s drone last year in an undated photo.
SNOHOMISH — A new tool has been added to the arsenal of one fire district that could lead to better response to emergencies, and better public safety coordination.
The tool is an Unmanned Air System (UAS), more commonly known as a drone. Fire officials at Snohomish County Fire District 22 in Getchell began using it last year for incidents that helped
them gain a new perspective that proved beneficial. Snohomish County Fire District 22 is the first county agency to use a drone for incident response.
This is not an average drone picked up at a store. This is a specialized flying tool to get a better view of the scenario when fighting fires.
Getchell Fire began its program in 2016, but didn’t activate and deploy its flying machine until summer 2017 after a lengthy amount of staff training.
Operating the drone means abiding by several laws and rules placed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as local law, and obtaining certain licenses and certifications.
When Snohomish County Fire District 22’s assistant chief and safety trainer Jeremy Stocker goes anyplace these days, he keeps the drone in his work vehicle in case of an emergency.
One use was during a land fire in Snohomish west of state Route 9 in September. The drone was deployed and firefighters saw there were several mini-fires scattered from a live power line.
“I was able to show them (Command) for working the fire, and can scout out the area to figure out what’s going on and it’s proven to be really useful, we can see it while it’s happening and call it over the radio, report progress — it gives us a perspective we’ve never had before.”
The drone was also deployed when the fire district aided the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office water rescue team in search of a person along the Snohomish River, as well as wild land fires from above.
One incident in particular was when Stocker deployed for a small wildland fire that seemed to not pose a threat to a nearby building, or so fire commanders thought.
“We made contact with the Incident Command there and I put the UAS to give en extra eye in the sky, we saw the fire and power lines, and identified the main fire from above,” Stocker said. “The wind shifted and started blowing towards the building. Command couldn’t see that because of all the smoke on the ground, so from the view overhead we could see the fire moving towards the building and we were able o verify the correct location from above. I feel the UAS helped prevent that building, where Command was, from burning down and the fire was put out before it reached it.”
Both Stocker and Getchell Fire District 22 Chief Travis Hots are certified to operate the drone.
“We still have to follow all the rules from the FAA, which governs the rules for using drones or UASes,” said Stocker. “We can only fly it in the daytime, never over any people, only 400 feet up in the air, and only in Class-G airspace.”
Flying the drone above different airspace such as at Paine Field would mean something different. That’s because it’s a different airspace classification and requires a special permit from the air control tower.
“All this we have to know, train for and prepare when, or if, we use it,” Stocker said. “It’s really helped with learning how to plan for an incident, and we only use it for incidents where we may need a new perspective.”
Stocker said he could see other agencies using it in the future, not only for fire but also for missing people on the run. The legalities would need to be worked out, and that could make room for bigger picture ordinances or law for operating drones. Nobody wants their privacy infringed upon, which Stocker said that is not the use for the drone. It’s for public safety and keeping a better eye on an incident — from 400 feet above in authorized airspace.
He could even picture a larger drone program in the future within the county.
The Getchell Fire District’s current use has gained interest from agencies reaching out for education.
“I think that as other agencies see this, or have bigger or longer incidents, we can come together and help each other,” he said. “It’s given us situational awareness and a perspective we’ve never had before, it’s not just for fire, or law enforcement, but could possibly aid in disaster relief and command planning. There are so many options.”
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