Firefighting From New Heights

PEABODY — Think drones are just for fun? Ask the members of the city’s Fire Department.

For about a year and a half, a group of Peabody firefighters have been learning how a drone can be helpful in not just providing aerial views of fires, but also how it can be instrumental in search and rescue operations, and extinguishing wildfires.

And the idea is spreading, according to Lt. Russ Lewis, who said he’s been helping the Massachusetts Fire Academy as well as the Boston Police Department use drones too.

“It gives a good view of the whole scene at once,” Lewis said of firefighting with a drone.

Residents may recall the fire that tore through Lifoam factory on Fifth Street for a week last summer.

While firefighters didn’t fly the drone the first day of the blaze, Lewis said, the department took it out the second day.

“We could see what was actually collapsing on the structure,” he said. “We were able to see if we were putting the water in the right places.”

It turns out, through watching the camera on the drone, that firefighters needed to adjust the streams of water — they were pointed at an area of the roof that hadn’t collapsed, making it so the water wasn’t actually hitting where they wanted it to.

Drone cameras can also spin in different directions, giving firefighters a look at the entire scene from high above.

But firefighting isn’t the only thing the drone can help with, Lewis said.

With a hazardous material situation, Lewis said, firefighters typically have to go inside first to try to find out what the material is before it can be addressed. But one alternative is flying the drone inside instead and not having to expose firefighters to something dangerous.

The drone can also get a look above a cloud of hazardous material, in the case of, for example, a cloud of ammonia heading toward a public area, like a mall, school or church.

“We can kind of watch and see which way the plume is going,” Lewis said.

The drone has a camera on its remote, but the footage can be put on a private Youtube channel for those responding from elsewhere. The feed can also be connected via cable to a command post so others can watch.

As the drone work continues to progress and become more common with the department, Lewis spoke of possibly buying another one that has thermal imaging. This can help with searching for a missing person, especially in inclement weather.

“If the drone crashes, we leave the drone,” Lewis said. “We’re not putting lives at risk.”

Fire Chief Steven Pasdon says the drone is “a great tool for us to have in our tool box.”

“It can really give us a view of something that we wouldn’t really be able to see,” he said.

But using a drone in the department is much more complicated than just taking it out of the box and putting it in the air.

The department had a slew of paperwork to fill out. There’s also training involved and those using the drone must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, Lewis noted.

Eight members of the department are currently certified, and Lewis is able to do some of the training since he has a private license to fly drones.

Pasdon praised Lewis for his efforts in getting the drone up and flying.

“He’s a real go-getter,” he said.

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at . Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill.

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