NC county fire dept. debuts state-of-the-art drone at structure blaze

Emergency officials said the deployment of a drone equipped with FLIR displayed vast capabilities for future response


Chris Berendt
The Sampson Independent, Clinton, N.C.

The Sampson County Fire Marshal’s Office has a game-changing piece of aerial technology that allows for more efficient fire suppression and improved safety for those attacking flames from the ground.

Sampson County Office of Emergency Management has been the beneficiary of grants from local electric membership corporations, specifically South River EMC and Four County EMC, that were used to purchase state-of-the-art drones. One purchased last year through a South River grant was utilized at a commercial structure fire for the first time Sunday.

Fire marshals begin review of drone footage as part of their fire investigation of a structure fire. (Photo/Sampson County)
Fire marshals begin review of drone footage as part of their fire investigation of a structure fire. (Photo/Sampson County)

“That was the first time we were able to deploy that,” said Sampson Deputy Fire Marshal Joshua Deaver. “It was awesome. Being able to actually get up there and see where the heat was coming from was an incredible tool.”

In the wake of an unfortunate incident that ravaged a maintenance shop at Jackson Farming Company in the Autryville area, emergency officials said the deployment of a drone equipped with FLIR (forward-looking infrared) was a silver lining that displayed vast capabilities for future response.

FLIR cameras — typically used on military and civilian aircraft and more regularly becoming part of arsenals at local law enforcement and first responding agencies — use a thermographic camera that senses infrared radiation emitted from a heat source. The ability to use that technology is a boon to local officials, who said they are able to better coordinate overall response to an emergency situation, such as Sunday’s large-scale, four-alarm fire.

“With those fires, smoke is coming from everywhere inside a structure,” said Deaver. “With this (technology), we’re not sending firefighters in there blind, so there is a huge safety aspect where this benefits.”

About 70-75 fire personnel were on the scene at the peak of Sunday morning’s fire suppression efforts at the farming operation on Ernest Williams Road, led by primary responding agency Clement Volunteer Fire Department. Nearly all of Sampson’s 18 fire departments responded, along with units from two other counties.

As fire trucks doused the building with water, Deaver and fellow Deputy Fire Marshal Prentice Madgar deployed the drone equipped with DJI Mavic Pro’s top-of-the-line camera.

Deaver and Madgar are both U.S. commercially certified drone pilots, a prerequisite to flying any drone in emergency response. They each underwent online training and passed an aeronautics test at a Federal Aviation Administration-approved testing center in Fayetteville that gauged their knowledge on air space regulations, operating requirements and procedures for safely flying drones.

The Sampson County Sheriff’s Office has access to similar technology, which has aided in manhunts and missing persons searches. An alleged gunman trying to flee from a shooting in Turkey was apprehended in August 2018 when sheriff’s authorities utilized a similar drone, along with a K9 unit on the ground.

The Fire Marshal’s Office has utilized its drone with woods fires and in missing persons searches, proving useful in each. With woods fires, especially, a source and a direction of travel can be easily deduced through thermal images from above. Sunday’s incident took that usefulness to the next level.

“This is the first commercial structure fire where we have used it,” said Deaver, “and that’s where it will come in the best use.”

The fire originated in a 80-foot-by-180-foot maintenance shop, which contained various equipment, including a includes a pickup, tractor, spreader, hauler, three forklifts and a bevy of equipment parts and about 1,000 gallons of motor oil. The fire was ultimately contained, as firefighters worked to work for the rest of the morning to extinguish hot spots.

By noon, most mutual aid units were released from the scene and the Regional Response HazMat Team from Fayetteville said there was no danger to the general public.

The Sampson County Fire Marshal’s Office received assistance from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That is typical when the loss is estimated to be on a large scale.

While an exact cause is not yet known, through the FLIR images it was found that the fire originated in a 48-foot hauler inside the maintenance shop. The total loss of the structure and its contents, including all of the equipment and spare parts, was estimated to be between $1 million and $1.5 million.

“The specific cause is still under investigation,” said Deaver.

While that investigation is continuing, Deaver and others said Sunday offered a look into the future of emergency response, one made possible through grant assistance from South River and Four County. The second drone, courtesy of the Four County grant, has been ordered.

“We just wanted to give both of them a shout-out and a huge thank you,” said Deaver. “This definitely increases our situational awareness and the safety of everyone involved.”

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©2019 The Sampson Independent (Clinton, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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