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Drone helps Sonoma Valley Fire get a bird’s-eye view of danger

When smoke is spotted in the rugged hills above Sonoma Valley, reaching it by vehicle may be impossible, and traveling on foot is time-consuming and dangerous. But, with a drone, on-the-ground firefighters can assess a situation quickly and respond immediately.

“There are some areas on state lands that are remote and areas that are not populated that are very difficult to get in. This gives our members an opportunity to survey the area,” said Trevor Smith, fire marshal for Sonoma Valley Fire District.

Through a recently awarded grant from the California Fire Foundation, the Sonoma Valley Fire District purchased a small unmanned aircraft system, more commonly called a drone, with cameras and thermal imaging capabilities.

The program is “still being built,” and the department’s members are going through training and will be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We have two certified pilots and four additional members preparing for their FAA exams,” Smith said.

The drone program will allow the department to operate in hazardous conditions assessing situations from afar without putting anyone in harm’s way.

In hazardous materials incidents, for example, Smith said the machine could be sent in to assess the chemical spill quickly, sending back information to an incident commander who can then make more informed decisions on how to proceed—all in less time than it would take a haz-mat team to suit up.

Drones are also useful in search-and-rescue situations, helping to locate lost hikers or drop a life vest to a struggling swimmer. They are also used in structure fires to help firefighters locate fire inside a building, or in wildfires where they can get a better view of where a fire is moving.

Programs such as this are becoming more common, Smith said, with law enforcement agencies utilizing progressive technology in many ways, too. Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office introduced its drone program in late 2018.

“We just immediately recognized the potential benefits to the organization. It’s definitely an up-and-coming technology utilized in many fire departments in the region,” Smith said. “We’re playing catch up.”

Drones are useful for situational analysis during Red Flag conditions, and can help document fires to determine cause and origin, Smith said.

‘We can get a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening.’ Trevor Smith, fire marshal

“We can get a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening.”

There are some limitations to using a drone during a fire, especially a wildfire, because of regulations and safety around airspace. In late September, firefighters battling a 12-acre blaze with air tankers in Santa Rosa’s Larkfield area were halted when an unauthorized drone flew in the air space.

Smith stressed that the fire department’s drone will be used under very strict operational guidelines and managerial oversight, and only for the fire department’s operational and intended purpose.

The program is regulated under strict policies and state laws. “We want to stress the fact that privacy concerns are very real to us,” Smith said. “We don’t want people to feel uneasy about it. We want the support of the community. I encourage people to reach out to us,” to discuss any aspect of the program, he said.

Smith can be reached via email at trevors@svfra.org or by telephone at 933-2305.

The department conducted a two-day training on Dec. 10 and 11 on the grounds of the former Sonoma Developmental Center, and may have more in the future.

“Our goal is to have the program seen as a positive implementation of technology to increase our situational awareness and provide for a safer community,” Smith said.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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