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Greenfield emergency services drone program to launch this week

  • Greenfield Fire Department’s Captain Kyle Phelps operates the control for the 30x zoom camera while Greenfield Police Department’s Lt. William Gordon flies the city’s new drone during training at Greenfield Community College on Thursday. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • The city’s new drone during training at Greenfield Community College on Thursday. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ



Staff writer
Friday, September 28, 2018

GREENFIELD – It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a drone!

Actually, it’s two drones that the city’s Fire and Police departments have added to their emergency services equipment.

This week they launched the drone program. One drone is a consumer model with a camera and 30-minute battery life, which was purchased first. The second is a larger, business grade aircraft, with up to three cameras, which was funded through a federal grant.

The Fire and Police departments have joined forces to operate the remote-controlled aircraft to be used for various purposes such as taking footage of storm damage, looking at geographic changes after storms or for search and rescue missions.

Fire Chief Robert Strahan is the coordinator of the program. Drone coordinator is firefighter William Kimball. Lt. William Gordon is the assistant coordinator of the program. There are a total five drone operators, two from the Police Department and two from the Fire Department, as well as its chief.

The city received a grant of $15,000 to buy the larger drone through FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Strahan. He said he hopes to get a second grant for a thermal imaging camera for the larger drone.

Strahan said trainings are done while the officers or firefighters are on duty.

He said towns throughout Franklin County will be able to draw on the capabilities of the drone program.

“It’s a very powerful tool, but with the tool there are some restrictions.”

Kimball said a policy that govern’s use of the drones has been written for the program and was shared with the City Council recently. If there are deployments or  trainings that may fly over private property authorities are to make an attempt to notify people, whether  through the reverse 911 phone alert system or other methods.

Strahan said he addressed a council committee as well as the Public Safety Commission to tell people what the drone is used for as well as “what it’s not used for.”

“What this drone is not going to be for based on policy: we’re not going to be following people around with it. We’re not going to looking into peoples’ houses,” Strahan said. “When we do a training flight, we are very careful that the camera does not go into the neighborhoods. If it goes by a house, it goes by a house.”

He said he wanted to let the public know the drones will not be used to spy on them.

“This is collective police and fire, it’s not used for surveillance,” Strahan said. “When we fly it, if we have to fly it in a neighborhood, we have three methods that will try to notify people. The first one is the Rave Emergency Alert system. We can actually pinpoint the neighborhood, door to door, and PA system on a police cruiser or fire truck.”

He said in most cases they will not be looking in backyards, but in the woods away from homes. In the case where first responders’ lives may be at risk by putting out a notification, then it may not happen until the situation was over, Strahan said, citing the example of an active shooter situation.

Kimball said pilots must have a license through the Federal Aviation Administration.  Three of the members of the drone program are still working towards getting their licenses.

For every flight,  the city documents which aircraft is used, which pilot and which observers.

Each flight requires that there is a pilot and an observer, who assists the pilot by watching the drone for hazards. The larger drone has the capability to use two controls – one to fly and the other to control an attached camera.

“We have requirements that the pilot and the observer must maintain line of sight of the drone,” Kimball said. “If this is an incident there are going to be cruisers, there are going to be fire engines, there’s going to be some other emergency apparatus in the line of sight.”

There are certain weather conditions that prevent the drones from flying, including the need for three miles of visibility. The drones cannot fly within 500 feet of cloud cover, and are constricted by wind and rain.

“Anywhere it’s harder to put a person, we can size up and make our job on the ground a lot safer, easier,” Kimball said. 

Both drones have GPS capability that allows the aircraft to return to the location of take-off, if the remote control connection is lost.

Councilor Issac Mass asked Strahan who would he call if he were a resident upset by a drone.

“You can call Public Safety Commission, you can call the mayor, you can call my office,” Strahan said.