North Stonington firefighters envision many uses for company drone

Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V flies the company's unmanned aerial vehicle in one of the apparatus bays of the fire station on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. The company already has used the drone for a search-and-rescue operation but says there are many potential uses for the new technology.  (Nate Lynch/The Day)
Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V flies the company's unmanned aerial vehicle in one of the apparatus bays of the fire station on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. The company already has used the drone for a search-and-rescue operation but says there are many potential uses for the new technology. (Nate Lynch/The Day)

North Stonington — Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V gingerly handled the controls on the DJI Phantom Vision drone, nudging it gently upward as a whirring sound filled the apparatus bay of the fire station.

"If you can play a video game, you can fly one," he said.

But it's much more than a toy to the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company. The adaptable tool is a way for firefighters to locate people and fires more quickly, and possibly even transport lifesaving equipment to people in danger.

"It's all about firefighter safety," Steinhart said. "If I can put a drone in a hazardous area and keep guys out of there, it's a better way of doing things."

The drone carries a high-definition camera, which can rotate 360 degrees and live-streams video to an iPad Steinhart has mounted on top of the remote control transmitter. The drone can go from the box to the air in less than three minutes, and if the operator loses sight of the aircraft, called a quadcopter because it has four propellers, he or she can hit a button and the drone will fly back and land where it took off.

Though this particular model cannot be used in fires or stand up to high temperatures, the drone is built to withstand 30-miles-per-hour wind. Two batteries, each lasting 30 minutes, can be swapped out and recharged in the company car.

That kind of range and perspective is really attractive to the company tasked with 56-square miles of rural farmland and forest.

"Eight months earlier, we drove all over town looking for a column of smoke ... if you had a drone (you could) drive it toward the column of smoke instead of searching blind," Steinhart said.

Though the camera has been their primary use so far, two versatile landing skids on the bottom of the drone also allow the miniature aircraft to carry several makeshift payloads of lifesaving equipment. For example, with a boat taking longer to transport and prepare, ice and water rescues could be aided by a drone carrying a rope and flotation device.

Steinhart attached a rope to the drone with a couple break-away ties. "With a sling hook ... it's strong enough to lift a lifejacket," he said.

Connecticut is no stranger to fire departments using drone technology. In 2014, when a fire broke out at a Branford granite quarry that also housed a magazine of dynamite, the fire department used a volunteer's drone to fly over the site and determine whether the fire was a safe distance from the explosives (it was).

Branford fire Chief Thomas Mahoney said he believes this was the first documented use of a drone by a fire department. Since then, the department now owns its own drone and was followed by fire departments in West Haven, Fairfield and Weston, among others.

The drone has been in the North Stonington company's possession for months now. So far it has been deployed once: during a search-and-rescue mission at Lantern Hill, where it was flown high above the hill to look for the missing person down in the foliage.

The individual later was located in a different area, but it "kept firefighters out of the woods," Steinhart said.

Currently the drone rides alongside company members in a foam-lined box in the chief's vehicle, and any company member who is interested in learning to pilot the drone may take lessons. The company already has used it in several training exercises.

Steinhart said the company hopes to add an infrared capability to the drone in the future, so it will be able to pick up thermal patterns on the ground.

Apart from the instructions, drone pilot training mostly remains in the realm of do-it-yourself types, but change may come soon, said Wayne Sandford, a lecturer at the University of New Haven school of Fire Science & Professional Studies. He said the school hasn't incorporated drones into the curriculum for firefighter training, but he "can't say it's out" in the future.

Already the school has used information on drones as part of one of its online courses for emergency management based on interest in the subject, and several of Sandford's students have written reports on drone use for search-and-rescue operations. He can envision a time in which a drone could enter a burning building, survey the floor plan and send a detailed map of the fire back to the chief.

"I think what you're seeing and they're seeing is the tip of the iceberg: a few years from today, everyone is going to have one," Sandford said. "I think it's not going to be abnormal to see drones used at a fire."

n.lynch@theday.com

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