Drone Program in Va. Beach Takes Firefighting to New Heights

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — An unmanned aircraft buzzed over a gutted apartment building after a fire spread out of control in late December.

The drone was recording high-definition video and taking pictures to help investigators assess the damage. It was the first time the Virginia Beach Fire Department deployed its drones after about three months of testing.

“We embrace a lot of new technology in the Virginia Beach Fire Department and this is something we wanted to get on board with,” said Battalion Chief Brian Sullivan, a 16-year veteran of the department. “Getting that elevated viewpoint is something we haven’t been able to see on the fire ground.”

The department launched its program with two small drones and other supplies at a cost of about $5,000. So far, five firefighters have been certified as pilots by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Under strict rules, the department is able to fly as high as 400 feet and must have an eye on the unmanned aircraft at all times. The department must also get special permission, which takes just minutes, if they want to fly within five-miles of either Norfolk International Airport or Naval Air Station Oceana.

Sullivan hopes to expand the program with the purchase of a larger drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera, similar to one being used by York County Fire & Life Safety.

10 On Your Side profiled York County’s drone program in June. The $10,000 thermal imaging camera can detect hot spots in house fires and can spot missing people when scanned over a wooded area.

Both jurisdictions have a desire to attach a claw to the bottom of their drones to be able to drop a raft to a distressed swimmer, for example.

“The ability it has has to save so much work, keep people out of danger and do it for so little money, it’s a no brainier. It’s just exciting,” said Master Firefighter Chris Stockhowe, a certified drone pilot who’s been with the department for 30 years.

Sullivan says he’s aware of privacy concerns from homeowners, which is why the department has a policy prohibiting any recording over homes not associated with a fire. He says people who feel their privacy has been compromised can view the drone video at fire headquarters.

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