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Minn. fire department pushing drone initiative

The drones would be equipped with both optical and thermal-imaging cameras

By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH, Minn. — Aerial drones soon could become the latest tool in the Duluth Fire Department's arsenal of resources.

On Monday, firefighter Nick Fleming briefed Duluth City Council members on an initiative he called the SUAS project — short for Small Unmanned Aircraft System.

"For about the past 1½ years, we've been working on developing a small unmanned aircraft system for the Duluth Fire Department, primarily for our hazmat program. But we can see other uses across the entire city," he said.

Fleming predicted drones could prove useful tools for structure fires, wildfires, incidents involving hazardous materials, search and rescue operations, surveying the damage from natural disasters and assessing the structural integrity of damaged buildings before potentially sending people into harm's way. He said drones also could be used to help other departments with mapping, surveying, inspecting, documenting and even assisting law enforcement with crime scene surveys and accident reconstructions.

The drones would be equipped with both optical and thermal-imaging cameras.

Fleming said the thermal-detection capacity could help crews identify and attack hot spots in working fires.

It could also be used to help locate missing persons in low-light conditions.

He noted that the Rochester Police Department used a similarly equipped drone in November to find a missing hunter in Byron, Minn., when other manned aircraft was unable to safely fly due to poor weather conditions. A similar rescue also was recorded in St. Peter, Minn., last year.

Fleming also showed video of a January water rescue in Australia. Lifeguards fortuitously were using a newly acquired drone to conduct training in the area, when they captured video of two teenage boys being swept out to sea. The drone was equipped with a flotation device, which was deployed, dropped to the struggling swimmers in the water below, enabling them to return to shore safely.

Fleming used his own personal drone to inspect a Lincoln Park building after its roof collapsed in June and determine whether it was safe for city staff to enter the structure for a closer look.

At present, the Duluth Fire Department is seeking a blanket and jurisdictional certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, that would allow it to operate with fewer limitations in local airspace.

Fleming said the department also is working to establish standard operating procedures, drawing from some of the best practices developed by other public entities that have preceded it.

A 2017 study found that 347 emergency response agencies nationwide had developed formal drone programs, including nine in Minnesota.

Describing the ground rules now in development, Fleming said: "These are internal policies that will govern the use of this equipment across the city. It will inform our staff how to deploy this technology correctly. It will also include policies surrounding the data that is collected — how to store it and how it should be used, with a focus on minimizing retention of non-critical data and protecting privacy."

Duluth Fire Chief Dennis Edwards elaborated, saying: "We're working with IT to determine what we're going to be storing, how we're going to be storing it and what needs to be kept."

City Councilor Em Westerlund asked whether footage collected via drones would be made public, and Edwards: responded: "It will be under the same data practice collective rules, for the most part, as police department video."

Current plans call to pay for the drone program with funding from the city's hazardous materials program.

Fleming said leftover state hazardous materials funds from last year, combined with money from the current funding cycle and a third cycle which will begin later this year should be sufficient to cover the program's cost.

All told, with equipment, software and training, the initiative is expected to cost about $102,000.

Fleming said the plan should allow Duluth to launch its drone program without tapping any funds for general operations or training.

The fire department aims to train and obtain FAA certification for all 24 members of its hazardous-materials team to operate the drones. Fleming explained that the city needs a deep bench of qualified staff to ensure seamless coverage.

Duluth is looking to purchase a commercial-grade drone specially designed for all-weather industrial and emergency response use, as well as an inspection drone with a protective frame designed for flying in confined spaces and tight quarters.

Edwards said 12 firefighters already have already been trained to pilot the devices, and he aims to launch the department's drone initiative by June.

Copyright 2018 Duluth News Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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