CASA GRANDE — Regional Fire & Rescue Department has decided to jump on board with drone technology.
RFRD, a subscription-based agency headquartered on Overfield Road between Casa Grande and Coolidge, recently added two small unmanned aerial vehicles, including a heat-sensitive thermal camera.
Retired police officer Luis Martinez, who was the police chief at Central Arizona College, is now a volunteer with the department and is the chief pilot for the two drones.
Martinez said he has always had a passion for flying, but after he suffered a stroke he lost most mobility on his left side, which didn’t allow him to continue flying.
“Back when I was in the Army I used to fly for the air patrol,” he said. “My plan after retiring was to get back into flying, but the stroke took care of that.”
Martinez eventually discovered how easy it was to fly UAVs and how similar it was to flying an airplane, which led him to starting his own business in 2015 and putting his Federal Aviation Administration license to good use by helping different agencies.
“It’s a hell of a tool for firefighters,” Martinez said. “(RFRD) are the first ones in Pinal County that are using drones.”
Fire Chief Steven Kerber added that the infrared camera really helps his team in fighting fires.
“As an incident commander on the property, I can’t see all the sides of the building,” Kerber said. “If there are hose screens, you have nothing but smoke, so with the normal colors on a camera you see nothing but white or black smoke. With infrared you can see the differences in the temperature. You can see where the hose streams are overshooting the fire and not even hitting it.”
The infrared view allows the incident commander to direct a firefighter to shoot a particular area and it also gives a visual of where everyone is located instead of just audio through their radios.
“If there’s a smoke explosion and I see heavy heat coming out of a door or window, I know that there’s something dynamic going on inside of the structure,” Kerber said. “It tells a tale of what hazards have been presented. We either need to ventilate or go on the defensive. Just having eyes over a fire scene is totally incredible for us.”
RFRD’s two UAVs are a small four-blade DJI Inspire 1 Pro and a 10-pound, six-blade DJI Matrice 600 Pro.
Martinez uses an iPad to get an image of what the UVA is hovering over, and using an HDMI cable, the iPad image can easily be transferred over to a larger screen so more people can see.
FAA regulations allow UAVs to reach up to 400 feet only to make sure that they don’t run into helicopters, and a license is needed to fly commercially or in public service.
“You have to look at it as an aviation unit,” Martinez said. “It’s not just flying drones. You have to pass FAA safety. This thing is very dangerous; the propellers are made of carbon fiber. They’re not plastic. The little plastic ones, if they hit you, nothing happens. With carbon fiber it’s like hitting you with a steak knife.”
Although RFRD is the first fire department in the county to start using drones, it is also just the second department overall after the Maricopa Police Department started using UAVs last year.
“Everybody across the country has been moving in this direction,” Kerber said. “The technology has evolved in just the last four to five years and public safety use of the drones has been expanding just in the last three to four years. Chief Martinez volunteers his time and his equipment to our drone program. That expands the abilities that we have in the county to provide mutual aid to other agencies if needed. (It’s) the dynamic that we have now — the additional eyes in the sky that we have during a major incident.”