Fire Department's Drone Program Makes History

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - Corpus Christi Firefighter Paramedics train to stay cool under pressure during emergency situations.
So how good are they when it comes to working a delicate, hand-held panel that operates a flying robotic device, recording video and taking photographs?
"For half of us who are over 40, it's been a process to learn how to fly them. But the younger firefighters picked it right up and can fly the drones around everywhere," Battalion Chief Jim DeVisser said.
DeVisser leads the group known as the Aerial and Emerging Robotics Team (AERO). The eight- member team is certified to operate the department's two drones in Nueces and San Patricio counties. 
The drones, which are also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are best known for work with the military, monitoring weather and traffic.
The fire department uses the extra set of eyes to flyover homes, buildings and areas they can't enter and take pictures not usually seen from the ground. It helps identify leaks, people trapped and locate staff.

In 2015, the fire department received a donation from Citgo Refining for fighting hazardous material incidents. DeVisser sent out an email asking for suggestions on what kind of equipment to purchase and he received a request for drones. The young firefighter showed DeVisser some videos and photographs taken by drones and DeVisser said he knew instantly the fire department needed the technology. "It gives you this huge high-definition picture that is focused on an area in a short amount of time, and it's not obstructed by buildings or vegetation of any kind," DeVisser said.

It took the department about 18 months to set up the program, purchase the equipment and train on the rules and regulations. Last July, the group received its Certificate of Authorization (COA) or waiver from the FAA for training, research and development, becoming the first fire department in the country to qualify for this type of access.
In September, the AERO team used a drone during its investigation after a fatal diesel tank explosion at a local asphalt plant. "We took about an hour's worth of pictures and video and showed it to some state investigators who were in awe of the results," DeVisser said.

As drone technology grows in popularity, AERO team members share their knowledge with local students. The group is popular with robotics clubs and stays booked traveling around the area giving demonstrations. The firefighter paramedics enjoy having the opportunity to show students the technology up close, opposed to reading about it or watching it on a computer. The team said the students show a real interest in the program and the possibilities it represents.