News

Menlo Park fire district to train six teams to use camera-equipped drone

Fire chief reports on policies for using this new surveillance tool

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."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2015 at 6:29 pm

On another thread there were people who complained that the FD was spending money on a museum. This is the place to express concern on this expenditure -- this purchase seems like a luxury rather than a necessity.

While there may be advantages to drone technology, it is still too early in development; there aren't that many fires to warrant its use; and the tree canopy would probably limit some of its benefits.

I could potentially see this as a regional asset, but does MPFD really need its own drone?


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 16, 2015 at 7:51 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

Bob:

the cost of the drone is a fly spec in the pepper of MPFD's budget. It will have it's uses and only use and trial and error will determine its true value.


Like this comment
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jan 17, 2015 at 11:25 am

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

**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."**

Blatant criminal activity? It's legal to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes for your own personal use. Collectives can also do so.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" and the tree canopy would probably limit some of its benefits."

Look at Google Earth - practically none of the roofs of the homes and buildings in the Fire District are even parochially covered by the tree canopy.


Like this comment
Posted by Doug Radtke
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Consider that a backup helicopter is operating at a rate of $1,600 a hour of flight.

The National Park Service spends nearly $5 million annually on search and rescue (SAR) missions and that doesn't include the cost of hundreds of thousands of man hours that go into these searches.

In Europe those kind of people are required to get some kind of insurance to get bailed out for engaging in risky behavior, but I digress.

As long as the government is not trying to limit civilian possessions of their own drones this is a cost saving measure hopefully and not a chance for grown men to play with toy helicopters.


Like this comment
Posted by Cost of toys
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2015 at 12:13 pm

the only difference between men and boys...


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I actually don't think you would know anything about the kind of men who risk their lives to serve you.


2 people like this
Posted by Cost of toys
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Two retired, two active in depts around the Bay, in the family. So, yes, others besides yourself know something of the breed (and they're not all men, Peter) that run in while others run out. You are, however, relentless on these threads and unwilling/unable to see any fault in this particular area, so I'll let you drone on. Good day.


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I actually don't think you would know anything about the kind of men and women who risk their lives to serve you. Familial relationship are a poor substitute for actually knowing these folks.

As for me, I have personally been there and done that and there is no doubt in my mind that the use of a drone may well save lives and property.

You can just continue with your uninformed cheap shots.


Like this comment
Posted by Cost of toys
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2015 at 1:31 pm

"You can just continue with your uninformed cheap shots."

"Familial relationship are a poor substitute for actually knowing these folks."


2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

cost:

have YOU actually done the job?

I was a cop and I can guarantee none of my family had any idea what was involved in doing the job.


Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 19, 2015 at 9:15 am

>>> Familial relationship are a poor substitute for actually knowing these folks.

>>> I can guarantee none of my family had any idea what was involved in doing the job.

Absolutely fascinating comments. Tremendously thought provoking.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 19, 2015 at 9:50 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Informed opinions are always welcome.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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