HomeDrone on? Area Officials Weigh Unmanned Aerial Devices For Emergency Services

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CHARLEMONT — In a small town that attracts thousands of visitors to its rivers, mountains and forests, would an emergency drone help an understaffed volunteer fire department and ambulance service to meet the town’s emergency needs?Emergency Management Director Michael Walsh thinks so, and has asked the Board of Selectmen to consider buying one to scout out road washouts, missing persons, river accidents, brush fires and other emergencies that could take lots of manpower and time to pinpoint.“It’s a quicker way to survey a large area and make better emergency management responses,” he says.

Charlemont only has a population of about 1,000, but “we could have up to 5,000 people in town at any given time,” he says, for river tubing, kayaking, fishing, zip-lines, biking and skiing.


Greenfield explores

Walsh isn’t the only area emergency manager to consider how drones could be used in a crisis situation.Greenfield has explored this idea, but tabled it for now because there are still issues to be resolved, said Greenfield Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Robert Strahan. “We looked into it, and spent a great deal of time on it. I think it’s got very valuable applications, but there are too many questions that have to be answered.”

For a municipality to own and operate a drone, Strahan said, there are many more restrictions than there are for a private person. For instance, he said, a town or city would have to have a license from the FAA. Also, it would not be allowed to fly within five miles of an airport, without first notifying the airport.


Next-generation drone

After battling a brush fire in Athol, the Northwest Massachusetts Incident Management Team, including Franklin County firefighters, discussed the value of using drones to assess a spreading wild fire. But the group dropped the idea, partially because there is no Homeland Security grant-funding for emergency-response drones.

Last week, however, members of the incident management team traveled to Jericho, Vt., to watch a new drone in action. This drone, developed at the University of Vermont, is computer-programmed to fly along predetermined routes, producing thousands of “still” photos that can be used to map and document roads, rivers and other terrain. In the event of flooding, fires or other disaster, the drone can fly over the same route, at the same altitude, producing images that help to calculate the damages, according to Incident Management Team leader Dennis Annear, former Orange fire chief.


Cheaper than helicopters

Angus “Terry” Dun, former Shelburne fire chief and now deputy team leader for the Incident Management Team, said aerial surveillance of fires, river searches, and train derailments would be a lot less expensive with a drone than it is to call for a state police helicopter from Boston, Worcester or Springfield to do the work. “But it’s not a clean situation yet — until we have guidelines from the FAA,” he said.

One issue is how to keep drones out of the path of other aircraft. If used correctly in the case of a growing brush fire, a drone can help firefighters see where the fire is spreading to, said Dun. But in Southern California this summer, personal drone use interfered with aerial operations, in which fire retardant was being spread by aircraft. “They had to suspend retardant spraying to get the drone out of the area,” he said.“There are some really serious issues with flying drones that have yet to be resolved. It takes a certain amount of skill to run these things. There’s a matter of getting the training, getting the cost in line and in waiting for the FAA to devise the rules,” said Dun. “It’s not a clean situation yet.”