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Thursday, July 21, 2022

Situational Awareness:
Wyoming County emergency services 
see value and versatility in drone usage

A drone operated by the Wyoming County Fire & Emergency Management hovers during a brief demonstration in Warsaw. It has a camera, thermal imaging camera, loudspeaker and spotlight.

Helmets. Breathing gear. Radios, hoses and medical equipment.

As technology advances, fire departments and rescue squads have likewise advanced over the decades. And Wyoming County’s no different.

The county’s Fire & Emergency Management Department has operated a small, unmanned aerial system — also called a SUAS or, more commonly, a drone — over the past year. It’s proving its worth in a variety of situations and circumstances.

“The primary purpose of the drone is for emergency responses such as search and rescue or a hazardous materials incident,” said Director Brian Meyers. “The drone also has value for structure fires, brush fires, etc. Anything that can help the incident commander gain additional situational awareness of the incident, especially if they are unable to view the entire incident scene.”

Fire & Emergency Management purchased the drone last year in conjunction with the county Health Department. It cost $4,130 — covered by grant funding — along with $327 for training and registration, and $79 for insurance.

The unit looks vaguely like a robotic insect. It takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter, using four separate rotors mounted on arms extending from its structure.

It weighs about 1 pound and is equipped with a camera, a thermal imaging camera, a loudspeaker and a spotlight.

Meyers typically operates the unit, but trained county Health Department staff can step in if he’s not available.

The unit is proving versatile, with uses beyond structure fires, searches and HAZMAT scenes.

“The drone can also be very beneficial for large-scale events like a flood to perform damage assessments,” Meyers said. “The large brush fire this past spring in Warsaw would be a prime example of the benefit of the drone to identify where the fire is, where it may be spreading to and what might be in danger of being impacted.

“Additionally, the drone can be used for hazard mitigation related projects,” he continued. “It is available for municipalities who may wish to perform inspections of their critical infrastructure, such as a roof, water tower, or evaluate streambank erosion. We hope to establish a mapping program as well, that can perform a variety of tasks that can benefit many village, town or county departments in their day-to-day work.”

The drone is battery-powered and can operate for about 20 minutes depending on the situation. Emergency Services has extra batteries and chargers on hand for sustained operations if needed.

The unit made 13 total flights in 2021, including five emergencies, four training flights, three planned events,and one hazard mitigation.

Meyers said there’s been a lot of value in its use.

“In 2022, it has been utilized for one emergency incident, and a few times during some potential flooding/ice jam events in February,” he said. “There have also been various training events, including a weekend at the state Training Center where we performed various skills-related competencies, which was extremely helpful in building confidence in operating and understanding the uses of the equipment.”

The county Board of Supervisors approved purchasing some additional equipment for the drone during on July 12. The measure allows purchase of a case equipped with a monitor and recharger, so other people can view the unit’s imagery without needing to peer over the operator’s shoulder. Meyers said the Health Department also has a drone program to assist with inspections.

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