This Florida Fire and Rescue District Changed Its Outlook on Drones


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The district started using drones for more than situational awareness and eventually ended up expanding the fleet.

Responding to an overturned tanker on the interstate is a common job for a local HAZMAT team. It can also be a perilous one, depending on what the tanker was carrying.

Instead of sending in team members right away, the Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue District now uses drones to scope out the situation. The drones can place sensitive metering devices to detect radiation and measure chemical compositions around the crash to help figure out what might be in any spill.

The drone can then be used to gather other intelligence, such as the number of victims on the ground.

“We want to use the drones to do the dull, dirty and dangerous stuff rather than risking the lives of our personnel,” Rich Gatanis, unmanned aircraft systems coordinator for SMFR, told Route Fifty.

Things didn’t used to be this way.

When the district started its drone program in 2015, officials originally viewed drones as simply an extra sets of eyes in the sky.

Covering the southern part of Manatee County, Florida, the fire and rescue district has since expanded its drone fleet from one to three, with a fourth on the way, to assist with all manner of district and county emergencies since 2017.

Until recently, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have a UAS fleet, so the district would assist SWAT deputies with situational awareness when they were dispatched, such as when a suspect was barricaded in a building or fled on foot through the woods.

SMFR also helped city managers concerned about infrastructure damage ahead of 2017’s Hurricane Irma. They sent drones up into the sky to photograph and film bridges and beaches, hoping this information would later give them a better sense for high water marks and damage after the storm hit. In the end there was no major flooding in the county, but before and after images could be compared.

The district now trains pilots to use drones in all of these emergency situations.

Using drones during Florida’s hot summer can also help ensure the health of district personnel, Gatanis said. Responding to a summer emergency in a HAZMAT suit brings with it the risk of heat stroke, which is reduced when a drone can do the work.

New drones run SMFR $3,000 to $5,000 for a basic model up to $30,000 to $40,000 for a “fully kitted-out system,” Gatanis said.

Drone manufacturer DJI has worked with SMFR to improve its product line and partnered with electronics company Epson on augmented reality, or AR, glasses for pilots.

Smart glasses allow pilots to maintain visual line of sight with the drone, a Federal Aviation Administration priority, and avoid obstacles while projecting the drone’s view in front of their eyes and thermal imaging if needed. Pilots can also display data via the glasses such as UAS altitude and battery life without looking away from the drone—especially important when guiding it into a tight, tense emergency situations.

“We end up having to put our drone in uncomfortable locations that most people wouldn’t feel comfortable with,” Gatanis said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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