Columbus Township Fire and Rescue has become the latest among the first responders in Bartholomew County to acquire a potentially life-saving drone.
Formally called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems, drones are essentially flying robots that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans. They work in conjunction with onboard sensors and embedded global positioning systems.
Columbus Township Fire Chief Dave Thompson says he has wanted a professional-level drone for quite some time, and had been looking at different funding sources. However, the chief said his department has not been able to raise the several thousand dollars required to purchase the technology and sufficiently train personnel so drones could be used during emergencies.
In early August, Columbus Township competed with several other fire departments to win one drone being given away at the 2021 Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, nobody local went home with the prize.
But the conference gave Thompson the opportunity to explain Columbus Township’s need for a drone to a man name Steven Graves, CEO and founder of a nonprofit called “Drone Assist Indiana.” Graves’ organization is dedicated to providing equipment and pilots to help find high-risk individuals who are reported missing, such as those who may have special needs or those on the autism spectrum.
The fire chief said over a month after the conference ended, he got a phone call from Graves informing him he had secured financial sponsors to provide Columbus Township with the same model of drone that was given away in early August.
The drone, which provides 4,000 lines of resolution, similar to a high-definition television, was presented to Thompson and his crew on Sept. 7 at their fire house on Repp Drive.
The UAV includes lighting donated by FoxFury Lighting Solutions, an Apple iPad donated by Sam’s Club in Columbus, and state-of-the-art 3D modeling software from SkyeBrowse.
The software will be exceptionally helpful on structure fires and accident scenes because it will actually make a 3D model that can provide exact measurements, Thompson said. Those models can also be filed in case they are needed for legal purposes in the future.
In addition, their new drone has an automatic return home function and sensors that prevent it from hitting any obstructions, the fire chief said. There’s even a pleasant female voice that advises the pilot and warns of any complications.
Over the past decade, drone lifesaving technology has proven to be a valuable asset to help save lives, property, and protect people from injury, according to the FDIC International website.
For firefighters, drones can provide details about a fire and determine how to control it with the use of thermal cameras. This type of imaging can also let a firefighter blinded by heavy smoke know if the water from his or her hose is hitting the blaze, the website states.
If a train derails or a truck flips over, a drone can be sent in to make sure there are no dangerous chemicals coming out of the wreckage. The drone can enter a potentially contaminated area and read codes that reveal what type of chemical the first-responders have to deal with, Thompson said.
But Columbus Township Fire and Rescue is principally interested in using the drone for search-and-rescue operations, the fire chief said.
Until recently, search-and-rescue efforts have been conducted by having several people walking on foot in a grid path. But with a drone up in the air, first-responders are far likelier to quickly locate a missing person, Thompson said.
“This will be a great tool, especially since we are in a joint venture with the Bartholomew County Water Rescue Recovery Team,” the fire chief said. “We can send it out to look for victims. If we’re not sure somebody is in a submerged car, we can send the drone out.”
The joint venture calls for the fire department on Repp Drive to house many of the team’s boats and equipment. Columbus Township has also dedicated one truck for water rescue, as well as trained some of their personnel for diving.
When thermal cameras are needed, the city firefighters on the Columbus Fire Department have been extremely generous in providing rural departments with the specialized camera, as well as trained operators, the chief said.
But if city firefighters are engaged in another activity, or there is no commercially licensed drone pilot immediately available, that will impact Columbus Township’s response time, he said.
“Having our own drone in our possession when we arrive at the scene makes a big difference,” Thompson said.
Drone Assist Indiana has also made all the arrangements for four Columbus Township firefighters to receive the classes and training required to get a commercial drone pilot license, also known as an FAA Part 107 license, the fire chief said. Those who have such a license are allowed to operate drones in most locations.
The value of the drone, accessories and training being provided to Columbus Township is likely around $5,000, the chief said.
“Having our own drone in our possession when we arrive at the scene makes a big difference.”
— Columbus Township Fire Chief Dave Thompson