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Drones, Military Bases Are New Firefighting Tools

— When you fight a fire, you do it with whatever you’ve got. And that’s why drones and military assets are among the subjects of the Firehouse World convention taking place this week in San Diego.

Aired 2/19/13 on KPBS News.

The latest trends in firefighting got an airing at the Firehouse World Convention in San Diego.

The Firehouse World convention runs through Thursday, Feb. 21, at the San Diego Convention Center.

San Diego's destructive wildland fires in 2003 and 2007 have made it a laboratory for firefighting. It’s also the home of many military bases. Those fires made it clear that military aircraft were a vital resource for water drops and surveillance.

But the effort to use them fell short due to miscommunication and conflicting policies. Ray Chaney is a battalion chief in charge of special operations with Cal Fire. He said San Diego firefighters have learned from past struggles, and they now know what policies need to be in place.

"We need to talk about airspace coordination. We need to talk about communication procedures. We need to talk about tactics,” said Chaney. “These are all things you talk about before you go into a firefight, not during."

Chaney said firefighters now have letters of agreement with San Diego military bases that spell out the way military assets can be used.

One tool that has become standard equipment for the U.S. Military are unmanned aircraft, also known as drones. Drones are used to patrol the Mexican border. Chaney added that they are also part of the future of urban and wildland firefighting.

One of the vendors at the Firehouse World convention, AeroVironment, makes a 5 pound drone called the Cube, which flies on four rotors. The company's Steve Gitlin said drones give emergency responders a picture of what's on the ground.

"It’s a relatively low-cost way for fire and safety officials arriving on the scene of a fire, a hazardous materials spill, a rescue operation, to get immediate eyes in the sky," said Gitlin.

The product, which fits into a suitcase, costs about $50,000, which Giltin argued is less than the cost of a helicopter.

The Firehouse World convention runs at the San Diego Convention Center through Thursday.

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