Menlo Park Fire District considers using drone quad-copter for situational awareness

by Contributed Content on October 16, 2014

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District is seeking public feedback regarding its plan to purchase a remote control quad helicopter drone that will be used specifically for situational aerial observation of fires, pre-planning video of specified high hazard occupancies, and for use on technical rescues, such as water rescues in the San Francisco Bay.

The topic will be discussed at the Fire Board’s public meeting on October 21, 2014, at 7:00 pm at Fire Station One, located at 300 Middlefield Road in Menlo Park. Members of the public may also send comments to Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman at harolds@menlofire.org in advance of the meeting.

The Fire District provides emergency services to the Town of Atherton, the cities of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, unincorporated areas of San Mateo County and Federal facilities like the Veterans Hospital, United States Geological Survey and the Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC). It is also a sponsor to one of 10 specialized California State Water Rescue Teams and one of 28 National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Teams under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and accordingly has responded to major disasters around the state and country.

“Operationally and locally, we’ve already been using drones to provide us with aerial photographs of our new fire station construction in East Palo Alto and at a recent fire in Atherton. Those units didn’t belong to us but were provided by the contractor and a stringer photographer who works with the news media,” said Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. In addition “a number of our personnel have been working with robotic technologies for years with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for collapsed structures and disaster situational awareness.”

The Fire District has been discussing the legal and liability questions with its attorneys and insurance carrier and exploring what policy, use and training requirements could best be put in place to make the program safe and successful. The District must obtain a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prior to operations, and authorization may include restrictions on use such as line of sight, height, time of day, proximity of airspace and other conditions like training and maintenance before an agency is authorized to use a drone.

The District has recently started to upgrade its mobile tablet technology for all of its fire apparatus and is switching to iPhone 5’s for all of its managers within the next several months. That technology will easily interface with a Go-pro video camera application which is compatible and can be supported by an aerial drone like the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quad-Copter Drone costing around two thousand dollars. Situational awareness is critical to emergency operations and real time overhead aerial information can be helpful to making better tactical decisions at a variety of emergencies.

“We would have loved to have had this aerial observation capability available to us when we had the East Palo Alto plane crash, San Bruno gas main explosion, the Oklahoma City Bombing, World Trade Center Terror attacks, in New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, or most recently at the Washington mud slide,” the Fire Chief said.

“I’ve witnessed the very concept of using this technology become an issue in other communities. We wanted to get out in front of this technology with our Fire Board and residents by asking them what they were thinking about so we can address those issues in policy and/or practice. We will not use this technology for surveillance and we will download cleared and appropriate video to services like YouTube linking them to our web-site and Facebook page for public benefit.”

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