Morinville Fire gets eye in the sky

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Morinville’s fire department now has an eye in the sky that the town’s fire chief says could help keep his men out of harm’s way.

Morinville Fire Services announced last week that they had partnered with St. Albert’s A3UAV to add a high-tech drone to their fleet.

Fire Chief Brad Boddez said he got the idea to get a drone soon after he saw drone footage of the aftermath of the July 2015 condo fire that happened at the corner of 103 Street and 101 Avenue.

“I thought, what a great tool this could be as a commander,” Boddez said.

The town looked into getting a drone soon after, but found the cost and licensing requirements prohibitive, he said.

Helicopter pilot Roch Dallaire of A3UAV said he heard about Morinville’s situation through friends in the fire department. Looking to get into drones himself, he offered his company’s services to the town.

Dallaire has spent the last few months training Morinville firefighters on how to fly drones and has loaned them his $150,000 Aeryon SkyRanger drone.

“It’s one of the most powerful ones in the world,” he said, and is the same model used by other police, fire, and military forces.

“It’s not a toy.”

The drone is now stationed at the town’s fire hall and can be used by them for free as a pilot project, Dallaire said. The town’s firefighters are licensed to fly it anywhere in Alberta. The town can also use it for non-fire related flights, but those won’t be free.

The drone itself is about a foot tall and the width of a manhole. Equipped with infrared and video cameras, it can fly to 400 feet up and two miles from its controller in high winds and minus-30 conditions, offering a clear view of anything below it.

Unlike most recreational drones, this model more or less flies itself, said Bret Wilson, one of the Morinville firefighters trained to operate it. All he has to do is call up a map on a tablet computer, input a location and altitude, and the drone flies there, buzzing like an angry weed-whacker.

It’s illegal in Canada to fly a drone around an emergency scene such as a fire unless you’re a first responder, Wilson noted. When he does it, he has to follow a binder-full of regulations, warning all pilots and firefighters in the region about the drone and clearing a large take-off and landing zone.

The drone transmits live footage to its operator, say Boddez and Wilson. Using it, crews will get a full 360-degree view of any fire so they can track its spread – something that would take about an hour to do with their ladder truck – all without putting firefighters at risk. The drone’s infrared camera can help spot hot spots in buildings and find people at night, while its regular one can map locations for fire investigations.

Devin Capcara, deputy fire chief for Strathcona County, said his department has flown drones since about 2013, using them to patrol wilderness areas for hot spots and to monitor roofs in structure fires. The drone’s infrared capability should help crews find people lost in forests or waterways, but they haven’t had to use it for that purpose yet.

“One of the things we’ve found it most useful for is investigation,” he said, as it offers investigators an aerial view of a site and potentially live footage of a fire as it spreads.

Boddez said they haven’t used the drone on a call yet. He also planned to make it available to regional fire crews such as St. Albert’s.

Questions on the Morinville drone should go to Boddez at 780-939-4162.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.