Technology: How drones and their young handlers are changing the future of fire fighting
In August 2018, during the Carr Fire, one of northern California’s largest wildfires last year, which the Menlo Park Fire District (MPFD), from the heart of Silicon Valley, helped fight, Jack McCandless managed to get a piece of drone-detection equipment hooked up to a state-wide command centre. A specialist with the police department had been unable to figure it out for a month but McCandless got it up and running within a few minutes. “Now we’re getting calls from members of the statewide system, ‘Oh, this is great, how did you make that work?’ ” battalion chief Tom Calvert says. “It was just having Jack.”
“Drones are a cutting-edge technology, so there’s a lot of bugs,” McCandless says. “I help smooth that out. Fire fighters expect it to work the first time, every time.” The nineteen-year-old, a paid intern and drone technician, has been working with the fire district for three years. He was introduced to Calvert by a mutual friend, just as MPFD was getting its drone program going. “At the time, he was working out at NASA Ames for a company that does satellite stuff,” Calvert says. “He was all of sixteen.”
The Menlo Park drone program got started in April 2014, after Calvert saw a drone at another fire fighter’s bachelor party and realised it would be an important tool for emergency workers. Drones outfitted with cameras help fire fighters get a better idea of the scope and damage to the surrounding area or perform search-and-rescue operations. Today, MPFD personnel are in demand as experts on integrating technology into fire response. And despite or maybe because of his youth, McCandless is a crucial part of the program, which includes a fleet of fourteen DJI drones of various sizes and capabilities. He has an intuitive ability for getting the drones to cooperate and interconnect with other fire fighting tech and he also fabricates custom accessories for the MPFD drones from his home workshop, in a role Calvert says is “basically research and development.” He’s added mounts for devices like gas meters and Geiger counters. He’s currently testing a mechanism that could throw life preservers or lifelines during water rescues.
“We’re using this technology in a way that has never been used in our industry, in a way it wasn’t intended to be used,” Calvert says. “That’s where McCandless is very helpful. He’s an expert at this stuff. We compare him a lot to Q in the James Bond films, who makes all the gadgets. That’s what McCandless is for us.”
How drones could change the future of fire response
Fifty years ago, flashover, the point at which a room gets so hot its contents ignite, engulfing anyone inside, took twenty to thirty minutes. But changes in home design and the increased use of synthetic materials have dropped it to fewer than five minutes. The average arrival time for fire fighters is six and a half. But a new set of technologically enhanced protocols, some already rolling out, others not far off, will help fire fighters deploy more efficiently.
Present You notice a candle has toppled and lit the couch on fire. You call 911 and explain what you see, doing your best to describe the size of the fire, the type of couch and anything else that might be relevant. | Future You call 911. The dispatcher takes down your information. Then he accesses your phone’s camera and mic. He transmits live video of the fire to the men who will be responding to it.
Present A computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) orders the trucks and special expertise (like hazmat or medical resources) suggested by the information the dispatcher collected. At the firehouse, a crew determines a route and leaves. | Future As the CAD determines what resources to send, an autonomous drone, the one docked in the closest of many “drone nests” around the city, takes off and flies to the coordinates transmitted by your cellphone.
Present The captain in the passenger seat of the first unit on scene gives a visual description over the radio. Upon arrival, he gets out and does a ‘360,’ literally running the perimeter of the structure on fire and reporting conditions. | Future The drone locks its cameras on the structure and flies repeated circles around it, offering an ongoing loop of 360s. It utilises standard cameras but also things like infrared, which pick up hot spots not visible to a human fire captain.
Present Fire fighters connect to a hydrant and start fighting the fire. Tactics are determined by the initial size-up and adjusted based on the experience of the men inside. | Future Fire fighters also jack into the fibre hydrant, a connection to the neighbourhood’s broadband network at the hydrant. This provides the bandwidth to fly drones, send live video to men inside and run AI or machine learning on data they send out.
Source: Popular Mechanics