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How firefighters are using drones to save lives

Fire departments have a new tool at their disposal in determining the fastest way to put out a fire: drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles are being sent to fire locations as scouts, using gas sensors and cameras with thermal imaging technology to help first responders in their rescue efforts.

"One of the reasons why it can save lives is it's so quick to deploy," said Jeff Kleven, battalion chief of the Fremont Fire Department in Northern California. "What used to take 10 or 15 minutes can now be done in two or three minutes."

Fremont is among a growing number of cities turning to SkyFire Consulting for training and certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. The company can have a fire department fully operational for drone use in three weeks.

It's not just for fighting fires. SkyFire CEO Matt Sloane said that about 300 to 400 police and fire departments in the U.S. are now using drones and that number is quickly growing.

Source: SkyFire Consulting

"For search and rescues, they set a hundred people out to walk on foot on a grid path," Sloane said. "Now, you can put a drone up in the air with a thermal imaging camera and be able to pick that person out very, very quickly."

Thermal imaging also helps guide firefighters to the hottest part of a fire so they they know where to focus their efforts in extinguishing the blaze. For a train derailment, the drone and camera combination can be used to spot leaking chemicals.

In December, drones were used at a tragic fire in Oakland, California, to help firefighters find the hot spots and search the building after it became too unsafe to go inside. The fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse art space called Ghost Ship, was one of the deadliest in Oakland's history.

Thermal cameras on drones tell firefighters what parts of the fire they need to target first.
Source: SkyFire Consulting
Thermal cameras on drones tell firefighters what parts of the fire they need to target first.

There are still challenges to widespread adoption of drones. Policies for usage aren't yet thorough and there are concerns that drones will invade people's privacy.

But Kleven said his department and others are educating their residents about the many benefits. Drones are not only saving lives, but making fire departments more efficient with their limited resources.

"The multimillion-dollar a year cost to keep a manned helicopter in the air can be augmented by a couple thousand dollar drone," he said.