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Condominium blaze brings up fire-fighting drones

(West County Fire/EMS photo)

(West County Fire/EMS photo)

Scarcely a day goes by without a news media story about unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs or drones as they commonly are identified.

While most of the news coverage deals with military applications or with drones being in places where they don’t belong – such as near airports – the Monarch Fire Protection District is among a number of area fire departments considering them as a possible tool to aid in firefighting efforts.

The issue was aired at the Aug. 12 meeting of the Monarch Board of Directors when the district’s command officers reviewed aspects of an Aug. 5 fire at a condominium complex on Bantry Lane in Chesterfield.

Plumbing work being done in the 37-unit building is believed to have caused the blaze, which led to major fire, smoke and water damage. Fortunately, almost all the residents of the complex who were home at the time were able to evacuate safely and with no injuries. One woman physically unable to escape was rescued by a West County EMS and Fire Protection District crew member and taken to a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation.

Much of the damage came from a secondary blaze apparently caused by fire making its way through wall and floor openings and ultimately erupting some distance away from the initial flames.

According to Monarch Chief Chuck Marsonette, a drone equipped with forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensors likely would have spotted the secondary fire developing so that firefighters could have attacked it before the flames broke through the structure.

Marsonette said drones equipped with the sensors can spot and relay to personnel on the ground a visual image showing differences in temperature. Unseen flames in a building would emit a heat signature much different from surrounding areas where there was no fire burning.

Marsonette said he planned to attend an upcoming demonstration showing the various capabilities a drone has and would evaluate the possibility of aquiring a UAV.

In addition to its use in firefighting, a drone also could be used to help someone in danger of drowning, Marsonette noted, by carrying and dropping a flotation device to the person more quickly than a rescue boat could arrive.

The Bantry Lane fire was Monarch’s biggest in recent memory in terms of manpower and equipment. Some 100 firefighters and 35 fire and rescue trucks from West and North County departments responded to the four-alarm blaze.

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