Drones keeping Spokane firefighters safe

SPOKANE, Wash. - If you don't already own one, you've probably seen them flying around. Drones have soared in popularity among photographers, even news stations, and more recently, the Spokane Fire Department has found another use for them.

A little more than a year ago, Spokane Fire was the first department in Washington state to use drones, and train firefighters to be pilots for all kinds of emergencies. The training program is run out of Station 17 in northwest Spokane.

"Our training takes about six months, we put everybody through our own ground and 3D ground training program," said Captain Eric Ross.

SFD owns a total of four drones - three Mavic Pros, and one M210 drone which also has an infrared camera.

"What this has given us is a different view of the fire scene, of the entire scene that we've never seen before," Ross said.

The M210 can see through smoke, and shows crews hotspots and where to aim fire lines. The drone's video feed can be shared to tablets used by incident commanders.

Ross said, "Anytime we can add more decision making capabilities for our incident commanders, the better off we are."

Just like firefighters, drones are ready to respond to several types of emergencies. When an overturned kayak was reported in the Spokane River in May, fire crews launched a drone to locate it and determine no one was inside. Flying the drone allowed crews to avoid risking their own lives in the swift currents.

"We can go out now and launch this thing and cover twice the amount of river in a river search scenario than the helicopter can in half the time at a fraction of the cost," Ross said.

The training crews go through exceeds the minimum qualifications required by the Federal Aviation Administration.  

"We have been able to prove to them that we can operate safely, that we train diligently," Ross said.

The FAA allows the fire department to fly downtown, which is in controlled airspace, but only during the day. Fire crews are still waiting on a waiver to fly at night.

In the meantime, SFD plans to train more pilots. Ross said other departments across the state have expressed interest in the program.

Ross said, "We like to lead the way - our department likes to lead the way in a lot of things we do."



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