By Kristina Tedeschi Wayne For The Bulletin
COLCHESTER — The newest member of the local fire department weighs 3.3 pounds, is constructed primarily of plastic, and flies.
It’s a DJI Phantom 4 small unmanned aircraft system — also known as a drone — and fire officials say investigating structure fires, searching for missing persons and assessing hazardous material spills — all while keeping first responders out of harm’s way — are just some of the jobs it can help perform.
“It’s endless what they can do with that thing,” says Terence Clark, a lifetime member of the Colchester Hayward Volunteer Fire Department and the owner of Clark’s Landscaping, who, along with his wife, Diane, donated the approximately $1,500 aircraft to the department after seeing one on television last spring. “I thought, gee, that could be a lifesaver for firefighters.”
And now, since the town’s Board of Selectmen approved its use for public safety on Thursday, the department is allowed to operate it.
Fire Marshal Sean Shoemaker, who took the lead on the drone’s operation, says there are several ways the department will use the camera-equipped aircraft, whether it’s searching for a lost hiker on town trails, documenting the cleaning of a commercial exhaust system for fire code compliance — “It’s much safer than climbing on a ladder,” he says — or securing an aerial view of a burning building or brush fire.
“It can send a live feed to the incident commander to give him a constant, 360-degree look at what’s going on,” says Shoemaker, who was required to become a licensed remote pilot, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, in order to fly the drone in a public safety capacity.
Although the drone, which is powered by four propellers and rechargeable lithium polymer batteries, was donated months ago, the department had to complete a long list of tasks in order to use it, including having a trained remote pilot, writing guidelines for its use and insuring the aircraft.
Shoemaker, who is currently the only certified remote pilot, received his license last October, and said plans are in place for two additional firefighters to become trained remote pilots.
The drone has yet to be used for its first mission, but when it is, all flights will require a two-man team — the remote pilot and a “visual observer” — who’s responsible for detecting possible problems such as electrical wires or tree branches, Shoemaker explains, that the camera may not be able to capture.
Along with keeping firefighters out of potentially dangerous situations and allowing them to assess situations from the air, the drone may also save the department some money, he says.
“We like to think it will, if we could maybe use this instead of a ladder truck” for certain situations, he says of the drone. “It’s not a huge cost savings, but it could save us in fuel and wear and tear.”
The aircraft, which flies under GPS using both U.S. and Russian satellites, Shoemaker says, is linked with a smartphone or tablet, and is, along with the position of its camera, controlled by a remote. Images and videos can be viewed in real time, while data from each flight, including the aircraft’s location, altitude and flight time, is downloaded onto a computer program.
Flights are also largely dependent on the weather, Shoemaker explains, as the aircraft does not perform well in wet or humid conditions, or in extreme cold.
Fire Chief Walter Cox says the drone is one more tool the department can use to ensure safety.
“It’s an additional tool in the toolbox,” he says. “We deal with a lot of risk, and with this tool here, and the camera, we can get in there without putting a person in a dangerous situation. I think that’s the greatest thing that it offers.”
The end goal, says Shoemaker, is to see safety increase as a result of the aircraft.
“Hopefully, it’ll either save a life or save property,” he says. “That’s our ultimate goal.”
Clark echoes the sentiment.
“If it saves one life,” he says, “it’s priceless.”