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March 17, 2015 10:30 PM

A Firefighting Drone Of Their Own

Brookings, SD

Drones are becoming a part of our lives more and more each day. In Brookings, the high flyers are buzzing in a new era of modern-day firefighting.

Video of a fire in Connecticut shot by a drone is a great example of why the Brookings Fire Department spent two to three years researching the remote-controlled machines.

"With this type of tool, you launch it in the air and you get that overhead look real quick. You can get a better size up; you're situational awareness is so much better," Brookings Fire Chief Darrell Hartmann said. "We could have made better calls with this type of thing."

Hartmann says his department's new drone, which cost the city $1,500, could have come in handy during a recent wildland fire.

"We had one burning and from my vantage point as the incident commander, I did not realize the fire was moving toward structures," Hartmann said.

Priceless knowledge when it comes to saving property, but it's also about keeping firefighters out of danger. A GoPro on the drone has been outfitted with a transmitter that sends live video to the controller and a larger command box during a situation. 

"That picture is worth 1,000 words; well a live video is worth 10,000 pictures. It gives you that automatic feedback, what you need. It boils back to the safety of our firefighters," Hartmann said.

Brookings Fire consists of 45 volunteer firefighters. They will all, at some time, get some training on this drone. It's something that might become a standard across the country.

"Try to get an hour in at least every time that I can," Deputy Chief Pete Bolzer said.

Bolzer is learning how to fly the drone. He actually purchased one of his own to train on at home but it didn't last long.

"Sometimes you get a little cocky and you crash. A good thing about the simulator is it's not hundreds of dollars worth of damage when you do crash," Bolzer said.

Before they fly the real drone during a call, firefighters have to practice on this video game and get cleared by a certified RC pilot.

"The firefighters that play a lot of video games, they pick this up very easily because the controls are exactly like a PS3 or an XBox. They operate exactly the same way," Bolzer said.

Because of strict rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, the department is taking every precaution to operate legally.

"Our maximum ceiling is 400 feet. We looked at the video at about, I'll say 200 feet, and you can see a long, long ways," Hartmann said.

Along with certain FAA paperwork, Hartmann and company must get approval from the nearby airport and notify officials when the drone is high in the sky.

"We are trying to follow all the requirements. Usually fire departments can kind of do it because we are who we are. We don't want to use that. We want to do it right," Hartmann said.

Using it the right way will pay off when it comes to protecting the public and his crew.

"$1,500 is a small fee for what we can use it for," Hartmann said.

Hartmann has received calls from fire departments all over the country asking him about the drone. While it stays at the station, it is a city asset and can be used by Brookings Police and the Parks Department.

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