Nevada County Consolidated Fire’s UAV a versatile tool for firefighters

NEVADA CITY, Calif. May 31, 2019 – Nevada County Consolidated Fire District added an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to their toolbox and after close to a year, the UAV has proved a valuable addition.

Eight district personnel are certified to operate the UAV and recently we got a demonstration of some of its capabilities at Station 84.

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Deputy Fire Marshal Mason explained the versatility of the UAV and how the agency uses the UAV/UAS (don’t call it a drone) in many situations.

During a structure fire, the drone can provide a 360-view of the structure, any adjacent buildings that may be impacted and, most importantly, the fire behavior. “We can send the UAV up and let it hover over the incident. It allows us to position our resources more efficiently and have visual contact with all our firefighters,” Mason said.

Multiple uses

The UAV is not just being used for structure fires, it can be deployed for any wildland fire and provide valuable reconnaissance.

River rescues, a big part of summer operations, are time-sensitive and were the major impetus to acquire the UAV. The UAV can cover a large swath of the Yuba, look for the missing person and pinpoint their location. While conventional communication in the river canyon can be spotty, the UAV uses satellite-based navigation and stays within visual range of the trained operators at all times. The district is scouting locations where the operators can see a large portion of the river and quickly direct the swift water rescue team to the patient.

The UAV can hover for 20 minutes on one battery, or fly 16-17 minutes during a river rescue – that’s about 3 miles of river canyon covered – and can fly at speeds up to 40 mph.

Hazardous materials and suspicious objects can also be safely inspected from a distance as the video above shows.

One use of the UAV that wasn’t initially obvious is defensible space inspections (DSI). Mason recounted a request from an out-of-county property owner for a defensible space inspection of a vacant parcel. “When we get a call asking for a DSI from a property owner, we can – with their permission –  fly over the property, send them the pictures and then set up a vegetation management plan.”

Privacy and safety

Privacy is frequently a concern with UAV use. The district has a strict policy and adheres to guidelines included in the federal certification. “We only activate the camera once we are over an incident, not while we are en route.” Footage captured by the on board camera is only used during the incident and excerpts may be used for training purposes. Also, the drone is not being used for ‘pot patrol’.’

UAVs and especially their counterparts, hobby drones, can put air tankers and other aircraft at risk. Drones are too small to be easily seen through smoke and could potentially damage engines.  For the past few years multiple incidents where an unauthorized drone brought air operations over wildfires to a halt have occurred. The UAV operators are in constant contact with both dispatch and the Grass Valley Air Attack Base. As soon as an aircraft is assigned to an incident, the UAV is recalled by the operators and secured on its landing pad. The landing pad has a dual purpose, the UAV’s four rotors can kick up gravel and dirt and potentially damage the camera lens or the UAV itself.

Upgrades and mutual aid

With the successful deployment of the UAV, the district now is looking to expanding the program. A second UAV and additional equipment for the existing one are on their wish list. The ability to carry a payload, like a floating device during a river rescue, requires an upgrade. The district is researching those options and the cost associated with it. Delivering a flotation device would be done by attaching the device to a lanyard module and carrying it to a stranded person. A camera with night-vision capabilities is another upgrade they are considering for search and rescue missions.

Meanwhile more firefighters will go through the operations training and increase the availability of the tool. “We can deploy the UAV at the request of another agency, it makes sense to share the resource and it’s part of the mutual aid we provide each other,” Mason said.

New Engine 86

NCCFD is also inviting the community to come to their Station 86 on Banner Lava Cap Road this Saturday to welcome a new engine to station. A welcome ceremony will be held from 1-3 pm, park on Valley View Road and meet your firefighters and the brand new Engine 86.