CHEEKTOWAGA – Firefighters from the Bellevue and South Line Fire Companies participated in a joint training exercise Wednesday night combining tried and true search-and-rescue tactics with modern day technology.
The twenty or so volunteer firefighters gathered at an undeveloped piece of property off Innsbruck Drive. The brushy landscape with primitive paths made for the perfect location to run their training scenarios.
“Ranger One, Drone One,” a fire radio scratched out. “If you guys look up, they’re going to be just north of my drone. I found them.”
Firefighters used three volunteer victims to play injured, lost hikers. They were placed deep inside the vacant parcel and then firefighters had to use their training to find them.
“We used both our drones to try to locate victims that were down and our four-wheelers, ATVs, and Argos to extricate the victims from the locations once we found them. It just aids in better service to our community by getting them out faster and safer,” said Sal Fasciana, Captain of Bellevue Fire Company. “It worked out very well. We found the victims, got them on board, and brought them to safety.”
Just as all-terrain vehicles advanced the search-and-rescue abilities of the firefighters in years past, drone technology is now on the scene aiding firefighters in finding lost and potentially injured people.
“I can take it up and find heat signatures. Body temperatures are higher than most of the ground temperatures, so I can see animals as well as people,” said Todd Roland, a firefighter and drone operator at South Line. “Not many fire departments have them. I know police departments are starting to use them more. We had the technology about a year ago.”
To date, Mr. Roland says he thinks Bellevue and South Line are the only departments in Cheektowaga to have drones in their fire department’s toolkit. In the past, the firefighters could call upon the services of the Erie County Sheriff’s Air One helicopter. It’s still an option, but the drone can be deployed a lot quicker which means firefighters can shave minutes off the search-and-rescue time and get the victim to the hospital much quicker.
“It takes me about two minutes at the most to set it up and send it out, and we have enough batteries four about three-and-half hours of searching,” added Mr. Roland. “I can tether into a WiFi connection and send a live image to an iPad; I can do waypoint locations, it will circle on its own if I give it a waypoint. It also has GPS locators. I can put a GPS locator with a crew, and I can send it to where my crew is, and it can hover above them.”
The drones aren’t just used for search-and-rescue either. They can also be deployed to give incident commanders a bigger picture of what they’re dealing with.
Cheektowaga Chronicle reported last year that Bellevue firefighters deployed their drone after Cayuga Creek jumped its banks and threatened a few homes on Rowley Road. While firefighters were only able to see flood waters from the street, the drone floated 200 feet above the area to show the entire home was in the middle of Cayuga Creek.
Mr. Roland says South Line hasn’t had to use their drone for search-and-rescue yet, but it has been deployed.
“We used it a couple of times and sent it up to look for things especially when we had the fires in the junkyards and its hard to get back there to look for hotspots,” he says.
The infrared device fitted on their drone which was used to pick up the lost victims in the brushy areas during the training exercise Wednesday can also be used on fire scenes.
“Instead of sending firefighters up to the roof on a burning building to find a hotspot, you can send the drone up, turn on your thermal imaging camera and you can tell if the left side of the roof is hotter compared to the right side,” added Mr. Roland.
Newer technology that is just coming on the market allows drones to be tethered to a command vehicle via an umbilical line. It will feed power to the drone and return video back to the command post. It can theoretically stay above an incident indefinitely.
While that technology isn’t in Cheektowaga just yet, both fire departments say the drones they currently have can be called upon by other fire departments should the need for them arise.
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