A small California city has joined the growing ranks of American municipalities to add firefighting drones to their public-safety arsenal.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District recently obtained a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. The approval will allow Menlo Park to deploy drones to scope out fire scenes and aid in search and rescue.
In a press release, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said his agency is the first fire department in Northern California to earn an official COA, adding that the department’s drone initiative has been a team effort.
“We received a few concerns but overwhelmingly, the public and Fire Board supported the concept, so we started to move forward,” he said.
The chief added that careful planning fueled the success of the COA process – the department researched best practices, consulted with the nearby Ames NASA facility for COA guidance and worked with the agency’s attorneys to cover liability and insurance issues. Schapelhouman also credited DJI for allowing the department to practice drone flying using donated DJI models.
“Unlike other public safety agencies that went out and just purchased a drone before they understood the rules [the District] asked the elected Fire Board and community first before moving ahead,” Schapelhouman said.
Chris Dennebaum, who will service as Menlo Park’s UAV Coordinator, said the COA application started out as a smaller concept but has now expanded to cast a wide net for emergency use.
“The COA began as an emergency use submittal but was modified to a blanket use, meaning, anywhere we can operate in a class G airspace, or under 400 feet,” Dennebaum said. “Essentially that will allow us to support local, regional, State and Federal missions aligned with our National Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and take care of the Fire District which serves Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and unincorporated county areas.”
For Schapelhouman, witnessing a civilian drone filming of a fire scene sold him on the idea of UAV deployment. During a recent fire that destroyed 13 acres of grassland near Facebook’s HQ in March, emergency officials allowed a drone operator to fly a quadcopter over the fire to evaluate the blaze.
“I don’t know how many times we get a call that an accident is on one side of the bridge, and it ends up being on the other side,” Schapelhouman told the Mercury News at the time. “If we put a drone in service, we would immediately be able to … determine if we need to ramp up or ramp down our responses,” he added. “That ability will make us smarter and more efficient than we are today.”