A thermal imaging-capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is Twain Harte Community Services District's (THCSD) newest firefighting and rescue tool.
THCSD purchased the UAV with $17,500 in grant monies: $2,500 from PG&E and a recent $15,000 award from California Fire Foundation, in partnership with Edison International and PG&E, according to Fire Chief Todd McNeal.
"UAVs give us the advantage of enhanced situational awareness through visual and thermal sensors,” says McNeal, “and thermal imaging greatly improves responder efficiency and safety.” The technology allows firefighters to locate people in significantly reduced visibility, such as people trapped in burning homes. It also can detect a wildfire's perimeter and possible spot fires through smoke, enabling firefighters to respond safely to fire starts before they get out of control. Thermal imaging also is a powerful search and rescue tool for nighttime missing-persons locating.
According to McNeal, the UAVs can be deployed in less than two minutes; can be programmed to fly at a set speed, height from and radius around a target; have approximately 25 minutes flight time; and automatically land when their power runs low. After a quick battery switch out, UAVs can resume flight.
THCSD's fire department began enhancing its emergency response with UAVs in 2017 when one was donated by Menlo Park Fire. The next two were purchased in 2018 with a $5,000 grant from PG&E. The newest UAV is the first of the department’s UAVs with thermal-imaging capabilities.
In addition to their use during fires, THCSD’s fleet of UAVs has been used for training and fire-prevention purposes. UAVs record every training for review, with the aerial vantage point giving instructors and trainees valuable perspective. In a program instituted by McNeal, Twain Harte Area Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members are trained in three-person teams to deploy UAVs. This allows THCSD to deploy UAVs when firefighting staff are involved in other fire-response activities.
CERT members have used UAVs to document the health of forested areas and photograph the roofs of all commercial buildings in THCSD's service area. Roof photos are incorporated into THCSD’s "electronic pre-plans", a data sheet that captures information needed to strategically attack fires in some of the more complex structures in the District. Pre-plans give firefighters quick access to essential information when responding to an incident, such as floor plan and layout, roof features such as skylights, and HVAC systems, proximity to fire hydrants, and more.
THCSD's fire department, the only fire department in Tuolumne County with UAVs, has a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which allows the agency to fly UAVs around people, at night, and in restricted airspace. "We make the aircraft available to law-enforcement agencies and fire departments upon request," says McNeal.