Mich. city fire dept. gifted drone to help during rescues

A new drone will assist Zeeland Township Fire Department firefighters during water rescues, ice rescues, fires and missing person searches

Audra Gamble and Audra Gamble
Holland Sentinel, Mich.

ZEELAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Thanks to a $17,000 donation from area businesses, the Zeeland Township Fire Department now has a new, high-tech tool to help out during emergencies.

A new drone purchased with donations from Gentex, Waste Management and Walters Gardens will assist firefighters during water rescues, ice rescues, fires and missing person searches.

The drone can fly for 30 minutes at a time and carry up to nine pounds of cargo at speeds up to 30 mph. Operators can stand three miles away from the drone, controlling it via remote.

Along with the purchase of the drone, five members of the Zeeland Township Fire Department went through unmanned aircraft certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to fly the drone.

Because the drone, equipped with a camera, can carry items, firefighters have been training to drop life jackets and ropes to victims struggling in the water or on the ice. A firefighter on the shore will fly the drone until it's directly above the victim, then drop the life jacket to the victim. Firefighters hope this could buy a victim a little more time above water for another firefighter or boat to get to the victim and bring them to safety.

"This is just a tool, but our first priority is to always get hands-on first. This will probably be used more for rescues or large structure fires," said Dusty Bradford, firefighter.

Along with water rescues, firefighters hope to use the drone's spotlight to search for missing persons in the dark, for which the overhead camera capabilities will also help. Already, the drone has been used to help locate an Alzheimer's patient who wandered away.

"This fall when the corn was still up, we could see lost people clear as day with the drone," said Lt. Brock Bruce.

The drone also has a heat sensor that tracks changes in temperatures. This allows firefighters to find missing people, but it will also help keep firefighters safe on the scene of an active fire.

"A fire scene is rapidly changing, but if we can see over the top, we could potentially save lives," Bruce said.

In the event of a large structure fire, like at a manufacturing facility, the drone will allow firefighters to watch out for pockets of hidden fire they may have missed and keep an eye out for a roof that may be close to collapsing on firefighters in the structure.

So far, the Zeeland Township Fire Department is the first department in Ottawa County to own a drone with such diverse capabilities. Because of mutual aid agreements among the other first responders in the county, the Zeeland Township firefighters have already taken the drone to help other departments during emergencies, including an ice rescue in Port Sheldon Township. The department also has a waiver from the Ottawa County Parks Department to use those lands for any training exercises they made need with the drone.

"It's the awareness in our industry for search/rescue," said Capt. Dan Veltema. "We're the first in Ottawa County and hopefully building techniques for other departments."


Our department is constantly looking for ways to improve our ability to save lives. For the past 6 months we have been...

Posted by Zeeland Township Fire Department on Saturday, March 30, 2019

The department has also been working with Ottawa County Emergency Management Director Nick Bonstell to determine how the drone could be used in the event of a hazardous material spill.

"We can fly gas monitors to test the hazardous levels of the air," Bruce said. "We can drop a radio or a call phone or medication to a victim. This is a new technology and we want to be on the leading front of that."


©2019 Holland Sentinel, Mich.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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