GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Junita Veenkant and her son Wyatt watched the rising Grand River from the Blue Bridge in downtown Grand Rapids Thursday.
“It’s amazing how much water we can get in just a couple of weeks to flood the river and whatnot,” Veenkant said.
They weren’t the only ones watching as recent rains help swell the Grand. Grand Rapid Fire Department Capt. Mike Witteveen had his eyes glued to his drone control screen, looking at a live view of water surrounding homes along the river on the city’s north end.
“We can fly different parts of the river, see what flood stage is at,” said GRFD Battalion Chief Scott Stevenson, who spotted for Witteveen.
Emergency management crews used to use gauge and eyeballs to track dangerous floodwaters. The high-tech, bird’s-eye view from drones is changing changed that. Stevenson says drones give first responders an invaluable perspective on the situation, from where the water’s going to what it’s taking with it.
“We’ll check on some of the big debris that can also becoming downstream. That can be a serious consequence if we have to put our boats in the river or if there’s fisherman in the river,” Stevenson said.
Leaks in floodwalls and other hazards are also easier to spot from above.
“It’s a lot easier with the drone because you can cover a lot of space up and down both sides without having the drive around,” Stevenson said.
The GRFD’s drone program has been around for five years. The current drones, purchased last fall, are the third generation for the department. They offer features like an app that can be accessed by other GRFD chiefs who aren’t on the scene.
“And they can watch, real time, from wherever they happen to be,” Stevenson said. “We can bring more heads together. That’s going to solve the problem faster.”