Grant helps Mont. FD purchase drone for hazardous materials incidents
Kalispell firefighters will begin training on using their drone at hazmat incidents to safely investigate the scene and take air samples
By Adrian Knowler
Daily Inter Lake
KALISPELL, Mont. — Kalispell firefighters are excited by the potential of their newest emergency response tool, a sophisticated drone that they say will keep first responders safer and help them handle a variety of emergencies.
The drone, which officials estimated cost around $30,000, was bought with a Federal Homeland Security grant. Kalispell Fire Department was one of six hazardous material response agencies statewide that received the aircraft and specialized training as part of the program.
As part of a training demonstration, firefighters Jake Felts and Jack Knuffke showed off a few of the tool's capabilities while locating a dummy and mocked up explosive device hidden in a field behind Kalispell Fire Station 62 earlier this month.
Firefighters expressed excitement about the device's tool kit, which includes a camera with a long optical zoom range and impressive quality, as well as thermal imaging capabilities. The department will soon add sensors that can sample air for hazardous or toxic fumes.
The drone is also able to mark objects and measure distances as well track moving objects over long distances.
As part of their training, a dozen firefighters on the department's hazmat team got a Federal Aviation Administration license for piloting commercial drones and went through a weeklong course led by representatives of the drone's manufacturer. The drone is operated by teams of two, with one firefighter piloting it and the other acting as cameraman.
The drone can fly for about 45 minutes continuously on a single charge and firefighters can swap in backup batteries in the field. The drone has a range of about 9 miles, though Kalispell firefighter Felts said that federal rules stipulate that the pilot must be able to see the drone in the air at all times.
Felts said the drone will be helpful in emergency situations such as train derailments, structure fires, and search and rescue operations. The camera's thermal imaging capabilities will give incident commanders important information that can save firefighters' lives, he said.
The tool can be helpful during structure fires by helping firefighters scan the roof to warn of a possible collapse, a task Felts said now typically requires a dedicated ladder company.
"Signs of a roof collapse usually start where people aren't looking," Felts said.
He also pointed to train derailments involving cars hauling hazardous chemicals, such as the February derailment that released toxic fumes in an Ohio town. The drone may be able to identify "hot spots" on train cars that can tell first responders if it is safe to approach, or if they need to keep their distance until chemical reactions have finished.
"Certain chemicals, once they start heating, you're not going to stop it until it burns out," Felts said.
Felts said he also sees the drone's potential as an educational tool as it can provide feedback to instructors during training exercises. He compared the drone with the cable-suspended Skycam used during NFL games.
The firefighters said they think the tool will become more widely implemented among emergency response agencies, and that departments may have dedicated robotics specialists on their staff in the near future. Knuffke said that he has been following developments in New York, where first responders deployed a robotic dog in the search for survivors of a parking garage collapse in April.
The department said that the drone crew is available to other agencies in the area for assistance on any incidents where its aerial capabilities may prove beneficial.
The firefighters say that limited battery capacity is the device's main drawback, but they expect it will improve as technology advances.
Felts compared the drone's low relative cost and increased safety to that of deploying a helicopter. He said he could see a day when drones make manned helicopters obsolete in urban environments.
"I feel bad for the helicopter pilots," he said with a chuckle.
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