Thermal Drone Imaging Adds Rescue Options for Sabine FD

Sabine Fire Department’s newest equipment has nothing to do with a fire truck, but it could change the way emergency services handle search and rescue situations across East Texas. For about two weeks the volunteer fire department has had a new drone equipped with an infrared camera. While there is nothing especially fancy about the drone itself, the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera will change the way the Sabine VFD and other departments in the area approach emergency situations. “It’s the next best thing to the DPS chopper – the thermal on the DPS helicopter. You can’t get anything better than this unless you get the DPS helicopter, which is not always available,” Sabine VFD Chief Richard Sisk said. At 400 feet, he said, all that is visible from the ground are the lights flashing on the drone but the camera can zoom in up to eight feet and “pick out a deer or a pig or a person.” Sisk has been using the drone and camera at night near his house to find deer and other animals to become more familiar and comfortable with the new technology. “I can see road trails. I can see animals in the woods. I can see heat sources. I can see all those things at nighttime where the eye can’t see,” he said. “Even the folks in the woods who are walking toward a fire, they can’t see that there’s a right of way or a path five feet in front of them, and I couldn’t see that with a regular drone. But with a thermal camera, I can see that, so I can walk them literally on a radio. It’s pretty amazing.” The camera also has different display settings and can show the actual temperature of an object. “Even though we’re a small volunteer FD, we’re always looking at better ways to do our job under limited resources,” Sisk said. “This right here takes the place of a lot of men. When there’s just two or three of us volunteers that get called to a missing person, we can stick this thing up in the air and cover miles while we’re getting the initial ground crews in place and possibly may find them. We just couldn’t physically compete with something like that.” Although the drone has a 20-minute battery life, he said, a tracking system and a top speed of 49 mph allows the operator to replace the battery and get back to an area quickly to resume the search. “And the great thing about the drone is you can always fly it back, set it in a pickup and go relocate,” he said. “You’re not bound to ‘this is where you have to be.’ It’s got lots of versatility.” Sisk has had the drone for about two weeks, and the idea stemmed from the late September search for Christopher “Bubba T” Terry, who wandered away from home and was reported missing the evening of Sept. 20. Ultimately, Terry ended the search himself when he found the search party at Pirtle United Methodist Church, but the scenario sparked the idea for a more readily available thermal camera. Sisk used his other drone, which is equipped with a regular camera, to search for Terry after getting a call from Energy Wedlfab owner and Gregg County ESD Board No. 2 member Mike Clements. After the search, Clements, who lives in Liberty City, asked Sisk what would have helped the search. Sisk’s response was simple: either getting the DPS chopper sooner than 24 hours after the initial missing person report or having their own drone with a thermal imagining camera. “So Mike said, ‘You know what, let’s find one… Let’s do what it takes to get one because I want to be able to provide the community and our surrounding neighborhoods with the ability to launch something in the air to find somebody that may be disabled or has a mental disability or elderly that has wandered off that may be harmed as quickly as possible,’” Sisk said. Mike and Amy Clements’ donation allowed Sabine VFD to purchase the drone, which Sisk believes is the only one like it in the area. “If other fire departments get these, we could save lives through search and rescue and not have to wait for a helicopter because you can deploy this thing out of the back of your vehicle within minutes,” Sisk said. Although it will make the work faster and more efficient, he said, it will not replace the methods used now with both human and K-9 search teams. “This tool is not going to be a fix-all,” he said. “It’s important to use this drone with a coordinated grid search, ground search, along with maybe even K-9 dogs. The thermal may help locate a person and then from the air we can guide ground teams in or a lot of times a dog may pick up a scent but may lose it, so if a dog picks up a scent in this area, you can fly a thermal drone up and go search that area a little bit more in depth. It’s all a coordinated effort.” Grateful for the Clements’ generosity, Sisk said, he is amazed at the way technology has progressed. Earlier in his career, Sisk was just excited to get a color handheld FLIR camera to replace one with a black and white display. “Now, to go from a handheld thermal camera to one of the first fire departments in the area to have a drone fully-color thermal camera, it’s pretty amazing,” he said. “We’ve made some, really, leaps and bounds over the last three or four years, and I think we will continue to make those leaps and bounds as long as I have members of my fire department and members of my fire department board and members of my ESD board that are forward looking and are willing to try new things and are open to innovation.” The drone is not just for Sabine Fire Department, though. The volunteer fire department will assist other departments in the East Texas area who request it. “If a fire department in Marshall or somewhere around our East Texas community calls and says, ‘Hey I’ve got a missing person, can you respond with your thermal drone?’, I’ll stop what I’m doing and we’ll go,” Sisk said. “Like Mike and Amy said, it’s not what you pay for, it’s what you could possibly save… Money can’t replace a human.” In addition to search and rescue, the camera can also be used in large fire responses to create a plan of attack and safely examine the situation within the building without risking someone’s life. Whether it is a house fire, a large structure fire or a hazmat situation at a place like Halliburton, he said, “You could send the drone over at 400 feet with a thermal and then you would be able to see the heat and you’d be able to tell the temperature because it gives you temperature reading from 400 feet.” The crew can assess the situation within the building by analyzing the temperature and heat readings the camera registers from inside the structure. [Click for More]