WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH – The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department will begin using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better know as a drone, to help monitor public safety during big events in the town, as well to assist with search, rescue and assessment operations.
The department is participating in a project with DJI International, a company that manufactures drones. The compnay allows the use of two drones, without charge (the second one is with New Hanover County Emergency Management); in return, it gathers data to evaluate the effectiveness of the devices.
“It’s providing us with eyes in the sky. It gives us immediate visualization of a scene,” said Sam Proffitt, a firefighter, paramedic and lifeguard with the department who is in charge of the program. “It helps to have that when we’re looking for a missing swimmer or kayaker or boater, or when we need to assess damage.”
The research will be done in conjuction with the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, where Proffitt received his graduate degree in public health. Proffitt will be collecting both quantitative data, which includes keeping track of the amount of time it takes between the drone’s arrival on a scene and the arrival of first responders (including helicopter support, if needed), and qualitative data. That includes how well the drone performs in its role to help in emergencies. The data will be sent back to Penn State researchers, where it will be analyzed and prepared for peer-reviewed publications.
“We’re not using it to spy on people. We’re not using it to invade people’s privacy. We’re just using it to get better visualization in emergency situations.” — Sam Proffitt, Wrightsville Beach Fire Department
“Air support is extremely important, and the cost of using helicopters, which aren’t always available to agencies, is high,” Proffitt said, adding that researchers are trying to see if drones are a more cost and time effective tool than helicopters.
According to Proffitt, Wrightsville Beach’s drone will only be sent out on emergency calls and during special events, such as the YMCA Triathlon on Sept. 17. It will not, Proffitt said, be used to fly up and down the beach strand on big holidays such as Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.
Some people, like Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair, voiced concern about the drone being used to film people just looking to have a good time at the beach. But Proffitt said the device, which is fitted with a camera that feeds footage to an iPad, will only be used for live situations and will not be recording or saving anything.
“We’re not using it to spy on people,” said Proffitt. “We’re not using it to invade people’s privacy. We’re just using it to get better visualization in emergency situations.”
Proffitt said the next step is to get approval to do training from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates UAVs. Once approved, Proffitt will conduct training for both Wrightsville Beach and New Hanover County emergency personnel to show them how to work the two-person operation. Currently, only Proffitt and Mike Arthur, a Wrightsville Beach firefighter and licensed pilot, are certified to operate the drone.
The project, a one-year trial, is set to end around Labor Day next year. Proffitt said the town can choose then whether or not it wants to continue using the drone. He also said part of the goal is to get similar programs going in other local areas, such as Carolina Beach.
“We’re some of the first departments doing this,” Proffitt said. “What we really want to do is lead the way with this technology.”