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Bloomington Fire Department drones save time and boost safety

Thermal imaging cameras attached to drones help the Bloomington Fire Department pinpoint hot spots in fires.
Bloomington Fire Department
Thermal imaging cameras attached to drones help the Bloomington Fire Department pinpoint hot spots in fires.

The Bloomington Fire Department is about six months into a new program using drones to help fight fires. Fire Department spokesperson Eric Davison said officials already have had good results in responding to structure fires and hazmat calls.

The drones have a high-resolution thermal imaging camera that lets them see heat signatures, helping to pinpoint where fire is in a building, he said, adding it also can identify threats for BFD's hazmat team.

“In the hazmat call, we were able to see which containers still had fluid in it, which ones didn't," said Davison. "You can actually see the line. It's not necessarily just telling you what's hot or what's cold, it's telling you the differences in temperature. The chemical that was in there was showing white inside of a 50-gallon plastic drum, and anything above it was black.”

A drone's eye view of an apartment fire in Bloomington helped firefighters walk streams of water on to hot spots.

He said the drone was thrown into a semi-trailer to see the containers and which ones had started to bleed or leak phosphoric acid, used to clean dairy machines. That forestalled the need to have firefighters in hazmat suits enter a risky area inside and outside the crashed trailer.

“We sent some guys down range with pH paper just on a stick, and they can kind of hold it out and find out where (the) acid levels are. I was able to just take a view of that from the sky in a safe spot and watch that pH paper change. So we could set hot and cold zones and a hazardous material, just by zooming in from 200 feet away,” said Davison.

He also said the drone can save hours because hazmat situations develop very slowly.

“It probably paid for itself right there, just based on the overtime and the people and the manpower. If we've got a lot of people devoted to that scene, we might have to call off-duty people in to man the city. It's just a trickle effect that can keep taking more and more resources and this really limited a lot of it,” said Davison.

In a structure fire. A drone flying above can help the battalion chief see where his units are.

“A lot of times, there's so much smoke, you're not able to see where your whole stream is going from the outside. And I was able to with that thermal imaging camera go around and show different people where their hose streams were being effective and where they were not,” said Davison.

He said it can be quite precise.

“From even 200 feet in the air, I was able to zoom in up to eight times and show people almost exactly where they're hitting,” said Davison, adding the department has used the drones on three structure fires so far. He said they are still getting used to regulations such as altitude limits near the airport. The drones also can take time to deploy and will not be useful in every situation.

Departments are using drones in search and rescue, too.

“With that thermal imaging camera, we can see the temperature differences. If someone was missing, let's say in a cornfield, we could fly over that cornfield, and someone's gonna pop up like a Christmas tree, and we'd be able to locate him right away. Instead of doing grids back and forth, we can fly over the scene,” said Davison.

Fire departments worldwide are rapidly adopting the technology. The BFD drones have a limit of about 20 minutes on station. Drones with beefier batteries can take off from the fire station when the call comes in and fly to the scene for immediate reconnaissance. Illinois is starting a certification program for fire service drones, said Davison. Yet, it is still a developing technology.

“I mean, pun intended, the sky's the limit, right? I've seen videos of some demos (and) there's even one in Japan that is almost the size of a small helicopter. It can squirt water. It can even shoot a chemical agent right in the window up to the 30th floor and put an extinguishing agent right in the window,” said Davison.

The Bloomington Fire Department has two drones and four pilots — one per shift. The costs of their drones are between $1,500 and $2,000 apiece and a thermal imaging camera is another $5,000.

Davison also predicts more use of tethered drones attached to the ground with a wire that will create unlimited battery life.

“I think in the next 10 years, we're going to see some pretty amazing things coming out” he said.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.