GRFD takes to skies with expanded drone program

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids firefighters have taken high-tech to new heights.

The Grand Rapids Fire Department, which added a drone to its toolbox just last year, has expanded the program. While they might look like a toy Santa left under the tree for your kid, the two smaller drones recently added to the program pack a lot of potential.

“What we aim to do with this program is to provide more information in a more concise big picture,” said Mark Klassen, assistant manager of GRFD’s drone program and one of 11 Federal Aviation Administration-certified pilots in the department.

GRFD put its first drone into service last year, and it became a quick success — and not just at fires. When the Grand River rose in February 2018, the fire department was able to monitor the floodwaters from above.  

“To keep an eye on the river, keep an eye on the water levels, make sure that our citizens were safe,” Klassen listed, “and to make sure we had a full understanding of what was happening.”

The drones not only have video eyes, but they’re also equipped with FLIR, short for forward-looking infrared.

When someone in trapped in a fire, firefighters go in blind, feeling their way through the smoke to where a victim might be trapped. Using heat signatures, the FLIR can pick up the outline of someone who is trapped, giving crews a more direct route to a rescue.

“We have thermal cameras inside that crew take in with them, but again, they can only see what’s in front of them. When you get that aerial platform, you can look down at the whole picture,” Klassen said.

FLIR also increases firefighter safety by tracking the path of flames hidden to the naked eye. Drone FLIR imagery from a recent fire, provided by GRFD, shows flames working their way into areas of the roof. If gone unchecked, that could have caused more damage and created more danger to crews inside.

“Our interior crews were aware that the fire had spread. They weren’t aware of exactly where the locations were,” Klassen said. “By having that elevated platform, we were able to redirect their efforts.”

Grand Rapids is one of only about 200 department nationwide to have developed a drone program. While they’re a lifesaving technology, any discussion of drones, especially when used by government agencies, also generates privacy concerns. Klassen says GRFD has strict policies to protect privacy rights:

No joy-flying. Fire department rules require pilots to focus on only the emergency at a scene.

Any video captured is erased after the incident, unless it will be used as part of a follow-up fire investigation.  

Outside agencies, including law enforcement, are prohibited from using the drones or their footage.

“We have designed a program that has absolutely no tolerance, no room really for what we call ‘mission creep,'” Klassen said. “Our program operates under a very strict set of rules and guidelines.”

As the technology advances, so will the program, Klassen said. That could mean larger drones with the ability to carry heavier lifesaving equipment to people in trouble. Speaker-equipped drones could communicate with victims before rescuers get to them. Smaller drones could actually fly inside a burning building, giving crews a better idea of what dangers they face and how to avoid them.

“What’s coming down the pipeline? It’s really anybody’s guess,” Klassen said. “We’re helping figure out what that could be.”

The new units, which cost about $1,500 each, will be more accessible than the current GRFD drone. They’ll be carried by the department’s two battalion chiefs, who respond to most serious incidents in the city.

Several pilots and spotters from within the department have already been trained, so the time it takes to put the lifesaving tool into use will be reduced. 

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