Drones a New Feature at Fire School

MANKATO — In the past, rescue crews relied on helicopters to provide aerial support for their searches.

They still can, but drones present a less expensive and quicker alternative.

“To pull something out of a trunk of a car and have it ready in minutes is huge,” said Al Ebbinga, general manager at Mankato’s Alex Air Apparatus.

As stories of drone-assisted rescue missions emerged, interest in the tool has grown.

Ebbinga recently started demonstrating drone usage and protocols at firefighter trainings, the latest being Saturday and Sunday in North Mankato. His was one of the newest classes offered at South Central College’s annual Minnesota State Fire/EMS/Rescue School.

The school draws more than 600 firefighters from 170 fire departments for classes ranging from reading smoke to farm extractions. Jeff McCabe, the college’s director of the Center for Business and Industry, said it’s the biggest fire school in the state.

Drones can have multiple potential applications for fire departments, said Bob Eastham, fire and rescue consultant at South Central College. Firefighters can assess a house fire by walking around the building easy enough, but a drone would prove handy for a larger scale fire at a manufacturing plant.

With its thermal camera capabilities, it’s perhaps most useful in search and rescue. Especially in extreme conditions, Eastham said, a drone could help when a helicopter can’t.

“I might be willing to risk a drone for a very serious situation in iffy weather where I’m not going to be willing to risk two humans in a $4 million helicopter,” Eastham said.

Area rescue teams have already used a drone to help find a missing person. In December Nicollet County sheriff’s deputies helped Blue Earth County authorities find a man lost in the woods. The Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department said afterward it too was exploring adding a drone.

Drones at area fire departments are still rare due mainly to the cost. Ebbinga said not understanding the regulations are another barrier, but his class Sunday is meant to go over how they can get started.

Dan Ruschmeyer, Eagle Lake Fire Chief, said staffing a drone operator is another issue for departments like his.

“My problem is, if we need to use a drone, do we have the manpower to use it,” he said.

With how useful drones can be, though, he said departments should be looking into coordinating with sheriffs and any other organizations that do have them.

“It’s a great search and rescue tool, especially if you get near wetlands,” he said. [Click for More]