“(We’re) flying these little machines in a way that no one else can.”
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Last week, a historic Portland church burned to the ground. When it came time to investigate, small Oregon fire agencies were called in because they were leaders when it came to using drone — or unmanned aircraft systems — technology.
The Scappoose Fire District and Regional Disaster Preparedness Organization’s public safety aviation program is decades old and started with just one plane.
“We have a whole training program platform that we’ve built from the ground up. We’re working with the Federal Aviation Administration to get waivers to be able to fly these little machines in a way that no one else can,” said Jeff Pricher, Scappoose Fire District Chief.
In partnership with public agencies across the country as well as Nears Space Corporation and the Tillamook UAS Test Range, the fire district-led aviation program is expanding beyond the day-to-day responses you’d normally associate with a fire department.
Those who pilot the aircraft go through extensive training and before each mission, they follow detailed instructions such as communicating with nearby aircraft and flight controllers and checking their airspace.
Only in 2022, Scappoose Fire uncrewed aircraft flying more than 86 missions, from devastating wildfires to US Coast Guard missions, search and rescues, and even make Public Works projects – like bridge inspections – safe.
“It’s not putting humans in a dangerous position where they’re hanging from ropes or hanging overturnable machines on bridges,” Pricher said.
After last week’s fire that destroyed Portland’s Korean Church, the building was unsafe for first responders to go inside, ultimately affecting how Portland Fire and Rescue investigates the arson. Down to hundreds of photos and GPS coordinates, they used the data to create a 3D image of the inside of the church ruins, allowing the investigators to
“We incorporated that into our photogrammetry software and it helped us get centimeter-class accuracy,” Pricher said.
With each flight and mission, Pricher said they discover more about how much these machines are capable of, as other government agencies also learn from them as they develop their own programs, and that’s just the beginning.
“I think there’s still a bit of a science fiction air to this. In general, our country hasn’t really grasped the power of this tool,” Pricher said. “I think we’ve come a long way from ‘this is a toy’ to ‘this is a very important tool. .'”
Further to this program is improving the fleet of pilots and aircraft, including some that are weather resistant, while also training the next generation. STEM programs are being created with local schools after thousands of dollars in grant funding by Senators Wyden and Merkley.