Montgomery County Fire Department Puts Drone-Like Devices Into Service

The three unmanned aircraft systems MCFRS has, via MCFRS One of the department's three unmanned aircraft systems, via MCFRS MCFRS commanders look at real-time footage inside the mobile command unit from an unmanned aircraft system, via MCFRS

The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service will soon use three drone-like flying devices to help commanders see collapsing walls, changing water currents and other above-ground visuals to keep firefighters safe.

The use of the three unmanned aircraft systems, first reported by radio station WNEW,  started at the department’s training grounds, where two of the devices can be seen hovering about 30 to 40 feet above ground during various exercises.

Department spokesperson Pete Piringer said  MCFRS put a third unmanned aircraft system (UAS) into operation last week on its mobile command unit, an RV-like bus that the department uses to respond to major incidents.

The devices each cost less than $1,000 and are a project of Montgomery County Fire Department assistant chief Mike Clemens, who oversees the department’s training exercises.

Cameras installed on the devices, which are less than two feet in diameter and operated by joystick or remote, can broadcast live footage back to the mobile command unit.

The department hopes the devices can show command units crumbling walls, movement of water in river rescues or where people are in search and rescue operations. Piringer said the department is developing specific guidelines for how, when and where the devices can be used.

With UAS devices coming cheaper and easier than ever, the Federal Aviation Administration is attempting to regulate an exploding marketplace and increasing use by public safety agencies, hobbyists and even sports franchises.

Local police and fire stations can get approval from the FAA to use the systems, which Piringer said MCFRS did. He said there would be no security restrictions for UAS use in downcounty areas near the D.C. line.

“Obviously, our folks are tuned into that,” Piringer said. “We don’t anticipate having to fly these that high.”

Piringer said the highest the UAS devices might go is in the case of a high-rise fire. Considering the tallest building in Montgomery County is 289 feet, that likely won’t be a common use.

The more likely uses for the devices will come in the case of a Potomac River rescue or in the search for hazardous materials in a building fire, Piringer said.

“We think they’re going to have a multitude of uses that will ultimately be very efficient,” Piringer said. “We’ll be able to deploy these aircraft in a way that will send some real-time data to our command post.”

Photos via MCFRS

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