Homes burned. Offices reduced to rubble. Restaurants, schools, senior living facilities, wineries — the Tubbs wildfire did not discriminate in its path of destruction in Northern California.
The 2017 disaster drew first responders, from police officers to firefighters to humanitarian aid workers. But a new type of responder came too — a fleet of drone pilots. Romeo Durscher was among that group, deployed by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to take overhead images of the damage.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Durscher, the director of public safety integration at DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer. “Cars were left in the middle of road with the doors still open. I saw pieces of toys that survived the fire. Just a few hours ago there was life and now everything is gone.”
Drone pilots like Durscher have become a vital part of disaster relief, from the California wildfires to Hurricane Michael, which recently battered the Southeast and East Coast. What started with well-meaning civilian drone owners offering their services has blossomed into a continually maturing disaster response capability. Sometimes they’re commercial drone pilots like Durscher who work hand-in-hand with law enforcement. Other times, law enforcement has drone pilots of their own. In any case, they’re incredibly valuable in the aftermath of a natural disaster, locating people in need of rescue, helping to determine the accessibility of roadways, and using thermal cameras to see if fires are still smoldering. DJI estimates the total number of people rescued from peril by drones globally has reached at least 133.
Battalion Chief Tom Calvert of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District says drones give him a huge advantage over tools his department utilized in the past.
“It’s all about information. I need to know what’s happening before I have my guys go in and stop what’s happening,” said Calvert. “That’s where we get the biggest value with the drones. It gives you a perspective on an emergency that we’ve never had before.”
Just Bought a Drone? Stay Home
Drone operators were a major part of the rescue and cleanup efforts after Hurricane Harvey battered Texas in 2017, helping locals, insurance companies and law enforcement assess the damage. But it was far from smooth sailing says Douglas Spotted Eagle, director of education programming at UAV training organization Sundance Media Group.
“You have guys that bought a drone at Best Buy, that want to contribute to their community but don’t know how to take orders, don’t know basic radio communication skills and don’t have basic emergency preparedness skills,” he said.
That’s when drone pilots can become a burden — or even need rescuing themselves. Tracy Lamb, vice president of regulatory and safety affairs & chief pilot of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says it’s best for drone pilots to reach out to law enforcement before a disaster strikes. Continue reading about quick responding drone pilots.