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Mountain rescues to get high-tech boost with new fire department drones

Delivering a bottle of water or a cell phone to an injured and stranded hiker are among the possibilities with the department's two new DJI Matrice Drones


By Elida S. Perez
El Paso Times

EL PASO, Texas — Stranded or injured hikers may be easier to locate starting this spring with the use of drones the El Paso Fire Department is gearing up to launch.

But officials said it will take a few months to figure out the exact capabilities of the two DJI Matrice Drones.

The two drones, requested by the fire department, were purchased for about $40,000 with city funds approved during the last budget cycle. (Photo/El Paso Fire Dept.)
The two drones, requested by the fire department, were purchased for about $40,000 with city funds approved during the last budget cycle. (Photo/El Paso Fire Dept.)

“We want to see what the value is and what we can do with them,” said El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino.

Delivering a bottle of water or a cell phone to an injured and stranded hiker are among the possibilities.

Once a hiker is located, for example, the pilot operating the drone can lock the coordinates to alert the Combined Search and Rescue team, easing the strain for both rescuers and the person stranded.

“It’s tough on the individual that is lost and tough on the members,” D’Agostino said.

Two firefighters recently licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration will start testing the drones next week.

The two drones, requested by the fire department, were purchased for about $40,000 with city funds approved during the last budget cycle.

The El Paso Police Department has not yet requested funding. The police department currently has two hobbyist drones and has established standard operating procedures, but is still researching policies before a program is started, officials said.

D’Agostino said his department will limit the use of the drones to outside emergencies during the pilot period.

Both drones are equipped with high-definition recording and thermal imaging capabilities that the department will use for search and rescue and hazardous materials operations under the pilot program.

The department must also establish a set of standard operating procedures for their use before the drones can go live.

D’Agostino said the department is partnering with the University of Texas at El Paso to get those policies drawn up. Testing the drones will also be done in partnership with UTEP at the university’s testing site near Fabens in East El Paso County.

“We wouldn’t be using them to train in residential areas,” D’Agostino said.

The fire department is anticipating launching the pilot program in March or April.

Copyright 2018 El Paso Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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