Calif. Fire Department Could Be First Approved by FAA to Deploy Drones
April 14, 2016
  • Share
  • When it comes to high-tech tools used in emergency response, the sky’s the limit for the local fire department. The sky also is the arena.

    Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said Friday that his agency is on pace to be the first in the nation approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy aerial drones.

    “I hear we’re close,” Schapelhouman said. “To my knowledge, there are a limited amount of law enforcement agencies and no fire agencies” using drones.

    Menlo Park firefighters saw how drones can help when a fire charred 13 acres in a grassy area near Facebook’s headquarters March 28. Brandon Vacarro, a private fire photographer, was allowed to fly a quadcopter drone over the fire. That helped firefighters determine the best course of action to extinguish the blaze the quickest.

    The district currently employs a pair of drones for training exercises, as well as Go-Pro cameras on helmets, hose nozzles and the dashboards of fire vehicles.

    The aerial drones, supplied through a partnership with China-based tech firm DJI to test the devices before they go to market, contain thermal-imaging tools that can gauge temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. They offer the district a 360-degree perspective during calls, particularly useful in areas such as the Dumbarton Bridge, which is often gridlocked during peak commute hours.

    “I don’t know how many times we get a call that an accident is on one side of the bridge, and it ends up being on the other side. It takes an engine 20 to 30 minutes to turn around on the bridge,” Schapelhouman said, adding that it’s difficult to gauge the severity of incidents from witnesses.

    “If we put a drone in service, we would immediately be able to … determine if we need to ramp up or ramp down our responses,” he said. “That ability will make us smarter and more efficient than we are today.”

    Schapelhouman said he envisions being able to stream aerial drone information to first responders as they head to the scene, as well as streaming it through social media to let commuters know “a roadway is impacted … so they can make adjustments.”

    Last year, the district spent $113,000 to purchase enough thermal-imaging cameras for each fire apparatus, allowing emergency responses to be faster and safer. The district recently uploaded a training video recorded by one of the thermal-imaging cameras to its YouTube channel (, which shows fire temperatures reaching close to 1,000 degrees during the exercise. The cameras can spot heat signatures inside most structures, down to where each firefighter is.

    “Our gear is rated to 500 degrees, and that’s not sustainable for a long time,” said Schapelhouman.

    The chief said the devices speed up response times and make it easier to find the source of a fire. No longer must firefighters combat smoke and use poles to test walls for heat and flames “almost like searching in the dark.”

    The district also is working with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to develop a robot that can sense and fight sub-surface fires at the Menlo Park facility.

    It also is exploring a partnership with Facebook to use its Oculus virtual reality goggles for 3-D mapping simulation exercises.

    “We are strategically located in the middle of a technology hub that drives the world,” Schapelhouman said. “We are aggressively attempting to leverage the opportunities that ZIP code brings to us, rather than just reacting to these ideas and opportunities as they occur.”

    Email Kevin Kelly at or call him at 650-391-1049.

    Copyright 2016 – Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.