Northport Fire Rescue’s new drone takes flight


By Stephanie Taylor

Northport Fire Rescue has added a drone to its arsenal of emergency response tools.

The department’s new UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is remotely piloted and transmits high-quality images to personnel on the ground. Firefighters can view the feed through a screen or goggles, which they hope will quicken their response times and heighten safety during emergencies.

“The possibilities are endless,” said department spokesman and Battalion Chief Jason Norris. “We can use it to film the roof during a structure fire to determine the integrity of the roof before we endanger any of our guys. We can use it to survey disaster damage, to fly over the river or a hazardous material spill.”

The battery life of the $5,000 drone lasts about 15 minutes. Firefighters will keep it below 400 feet to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, although it can fly higher.

On Wednesday, firefighters demonstrated the drone for members of the media. They used a smoke machine and a barrel to simulate a hazardous material spill about a third of a mile from Fire Station No. 4 on Rose Boulevard, near Tuscaloosa County High School.

The drone was able to get close enough to the smoking barrel to transmit the placard number indicating the contents.

Had there been an actual disaster, Norris would have been able to direct the emergency response quickly and without endangering firefighters, he said. The firefighters would have notified the high school and residents of nearby Clear Creek Colony to stay inside.

Sgt. Tony Gill is one of the firefighters trained to fly the aircraft, which he said isn’t easy. The department wants to have at least one firefighter working on each shift who can use it, he said. He isn’t certain but believes that Northport is the first department to utilize a drone.

“We wanted to try to get some of these new tools that the world is evolving with,” he said.

The department is operating under the same rules as a model airplane pilot would, Norris said. They have applied for a certificate with the FAA that will allow them to fly the drone with fewer restrictions.

Members of the department are attending the first meeting of the Alabama Drone Task Force on Friday.

The task force was created to review the necessary requirements for the state to use drone technology in agriculture, conservation and law enforcement.

Reach Stephanie Taylor at [email protected] or 205-722-0210.