Fire department to pursue drone program

Officials plan to use the drone for post-storm damage assessment and search and rescue


By Adele Uphaus–Conner
The Free Lance-Star

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A cluster of men and women in suits and uniforms stood outside the Caroline County Community Services Center staring up at the sky.

They were tracking a white, buzzing object hovering 60 feet in the air.

A drone designed to ignite controlled grass fires comes in for a landing in a field. (AP Photo/Grant Schulte)
A drone designed to ignite controlled grass fires comes in for a landing in a field. (AP Photo/Grant Schulte)

It was a DJI Phantom 4—an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. It’s the beginning of the Caroline County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management drone program.

Fire and Rescue Chief Jason Loftus and Deputy Chief Mark Garnett presented an update on the drone program at the Board of Supervisors meeting last Tuesday. The department first approached the board about developing a drone program in August 2016.

Stafford County also has a drone program in development.

Garnett said Caroline plans to use the drone for post-storm damage assessment, incident situation awareness, search and rescue, hazardous material response and other activities.

“If we wanted to get observation of tree damage, that’s very hard to do without the aerial perspective,” he said. “Or to survey damage on a structure, this aircraft can get over something that’s large. We’d certainly use it for search and rescue where we can, everything from looking for Amber Alerts, Senior Alerts or children or to help quickly find stranded boaters.”

Garnett said the drone could jump-start response to a hazardous material spill by flying in to assess damage while the response team gets ready and it could help arson investigations by getting into fire-damaged buildings that might be impassable to humans.

“I think the more we use it, the more we’ll find situations where it can be a valuable tool,” Garnett said.

The county purchased its Phantom 4 for $1,300, Garnett said. The aircraft has been registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and the county has applied for a Certification of Authorization/Waiver, which the FAA issues to a public operator for a specific drone activity.

Loftus said his department has also spoken with Fort A.P. Hill aviation section to ensure they are aware of Caroline’s UAV program.

The Phantom 4 weighs 3 pounds and can fly up to 45 miles per hour at a maximum height of 400 feet, although Garnett said it will usually fly at about 150 to 200 feet. It can fly within a 3.1-mile range of its operator. It is battery-operated and can fly for 28 minutes before it needs to be recharged, which takes about an hour.

“It’s a good-sized drone for us to learn on,” Loftus said.

The aircraft comes with a camera that can take still photos and video. Loftus said he hopes to eventually purchase a camera with heat-seeking capability that can be used to locate a missing person, for example.

Garnett is the only member of the department so far who is certified to fly the drone. He obtained a Part 107 pilot certification from the FAA after attending a week-long course provided by Piedmont Community College and hosted by the City of Richmond.

He spent three days in the classroom learning about the FAA regulations covering UAVs and basic flight technique. Course attendees then practiced flying drones, first inside and then outside.

“It was a little scary because none of the aspects of the pilot training have been covered in my fire and rescue career,” Garnett said. “You learn things like aviation weather, different issues of airspace and all the regulations associated with them. It was interesting but it took some study.”

He said that Caroline’s drone will always be flown by a team of at least two—the pilot working the controls and an observer keeping an eye on the aircraft in the air.

Legislation enacted this year by the General Assembly makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use UAVs to “trespass upon the property of another for the purpose of secretly or furtively peeping, spying, or attempting to peep or spy.” The Code of Virginia also prevents state or local agencies from using a drone without a search warrant, except in the cases of Amber or Senior alerts or for the purposes of traffic, damage, flood or wildfire assessment.

“There will be no routine surveillance that we are allowing our Caroline aircraft to be used for,” Garnett said. “We’re very mindful of that. The equipment we’re using is certainly not what one would see on TV in a foreign country. These don’t stay aloft for hours and hours or have cameras that zoom miles and miles. We’re mindful and respectful of privacy policies.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Loftus said other county departments can contract with Caroline for drone services. Already, King George has asked to use the drone to survey damage from the late-April storm that struck the county.

“We’re very excited to see what comes of this program,” Garnett said.

Copyright 2017 The Free Lance-Star

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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