If you're flying a remote-control plastic helicopter, even one with four rotors, one thing you probably want to avoid is flying too close to a fire on the ground. Heat rises, and fierce heat, such as that from a flaming house or tree, probably rises fiercely.
Words to live by perhaps for the six drone pilot-and-observer teams to be trained for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. The district is moving closer to buying a four-rotor camera-equipped drone, a plan first reported by the Almanac in October.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman and Division Chief Frank Fraone recently reported to the fire district Board of Directors on the implications for the district in obtaining and using this device for airborne observation of a fire or a search-and-rescue operation. Here are some highlights of the report:
■ Pilot training will include how to observe a fire from a safe distance, avoiding thermal updrafts and potentially damaging smoke, Mr. Schapelhouman said. The district will start out with a loaner equipped with a thermal-image camera. The vendor is partnering with the Menlo Park district, and the district is finding itself a leader in pioneering the use of drones in fighting fires, he said.
■ The drone will be equipped with GPS and can be set up to not exceed its altitude limits and to avoid established perimeters of airports large and small.
■ Use of drones by public agencies and civilians is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. Detailed FAA regulations on drone use are not yet ready for publication, but the district expects to get the permissions it needs to use it sometime in 2015, Mr. Schapelhouman said.
■ Drones are, by their nature, surveillance tools, and their use by the Menlo Park district appears to be reflective of that. Each flight will have a log that records who approved the flight, the names of the pilot and observer, and the location of all photos and videos captured during the flight.
■ Most images will be public records and available for viewing if requested through state Public Records Act procedures. As a reference, the district cited the 22-page "Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft," published by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011. For more on this comprehensive look at military and civilian uses and attempted uses of drones in the United States, go to this link.
The district is considering the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quad-Copter Drone, a squarish assembly about 14 inches corner to corner and weighing about 2.5 pounds. Four arms extend from the core at the compass points, with a rotor sitting upright on the end of each arm. Photos show them with white bodies and white rotors, but the district will be applying its own distinctive paint scheme.
On the scene, the drone's images will be downloaded to firefighters' tablet computers and/or smart phones. While the drone can stay airborne for just 25 minutes, the key is the first 10 to 20 minutes, a period in which many fires are knocked down, Chief Schapelhouman said.
Exceptions to access
Drones are much cheaper to operate than planes and helicopters, so once word gets out, the district may find its new tool in demand by other public agencies. If another agency asks to borrow it for an emergency situation, district policy will require that the drone be operated by a Menlo Park district pilot-and-observer team, Mr. Schapelhouman said.
There are cases in which law enforcement might restrict access to the images -- for example, if the drone were called to an active shooting or hostage situation. "Sometimes, they can challenge that (policy) or even stop it," he said.
While the district is cooperative with law enforcement, there are limits, he said. The drone will not be available for anything not within the firefighting/paramedic realm, such as observing a drug transaction, he said, adding, "They're going to need to find a different way." Besides, he said, a 25-minute hover time may not be useful for police work.
The Menlo Park fire district has said no to law enforcement before. The district has keys to many buildings, including apartment buildings, and on occasion, police have asked for them. With few exceptions, they're refused, Chief Schapelhouman said. "We see how it could change or taint our reputation in the community," he said. "We're kind of the non-punitive entity."
If a drone were to overfly a patch of marijuana, however, the police would be told, he said. "It's not as if we're going to turn a blind eye to blatant criminal activity."