Pretty soon firefighters in Montgomery County will be getting a little help from above — three unmanned aircraft better known as “drones.”
Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service purchased three $999 drones roughly two months ago, around the same time a massive fire caused $21 million in damage to a Rockville apartment complex under construction on April 1.
“We needed to see where that fire was going,” former Assistant Chief R. Michael Clemens said. “You can’t see it when you’re standing on the ground.”
Clemens retired Thursday as the assistant chief of the MCFRS training academy in Rockville.
Montgomery County’s new Wi-Fi-enabled drones can soar at least 600 feet in the air and can transmit images to iPads and iPhones, according to MCFRS spokesman Pete Piringer.
The footage they capture gives first responders on the ground a more complete look at how a fire is behaving and what a building’s structural conditions are like. “Roof conditions, walls that might push out and kill firefighters,” Clemens said.
Montgomery County’s firefighting drones have yet to be used on an actual fire in the community. Local fire officials said they’ve been practicing with the drones in training exercises, including a disaster preparedness drill staged at Germantown South Recreational Park on May 8.
They couldn’t estimate how long it might be before the drones are ready for real-world use.
For the Rockville fire, responders got an aerial view from a nearby high-rise office building. But drones, Clemens said, would have been a better option.
“Fires change so much on their own and so does building construction,” said Clemens, who was responsible for making the purchase.
“We have to depend on technology to save our guys and women from being killed on a fire,” he said.
The drones could help in situations involving hazardous materials, as well.
“We can fly that thing out with a test strip, bring it back and analyze it, tell us what it is,” Clemens said.
The drones also could be used for search and rescue, according to Piringer.
In 2012, Congress told the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with a plan for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. For now, public safety agencies must get FAA approval.
“The obvious thing is public safety,” said Les Dorr, a FAA spokesman. “Any object — manned or unmanned — can pose a hazard to people in the air or on the ground.”
According to FAA data, there were 545 approvals for drone use as of Dec. 4, 2013.
Door said the most common public uses for drones are for law enforcement, fire fighting, border patrol and disaster relief.
The renewal period for drones is two years, said Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman.
Agencies are initially granted a certificate that allows them to train with the drones. “Which gives them time to get proficient with using the unmanned aircraft,” Dorr said.
Once MCFRS can demonstrate its proficiency to the FAA, it would get an operational certificate approval. “Which means they can use the drone in the way they intended to,” Dorr said.
Clemens said MCFRS is in the process of obtaining a training certificate.