MURRAY — When Calloway County Fire-Rescue is dispatched for a call, its response is rather distinguished.
Out into the highways and roads goes a fleet of mainly white trucks with flashing red lights. CCFR will also be the agency with boats being pulled by its support units for water rescue calls on Kentucky Lake and other creeks and streams in the county. Recently, CCFR received its first actual ladder truck for an added pinch of variety.
Soon, though, it will be deploying something that does not have a siren and is not a truck, but this new tool may prove to be one of its most valued. And it fits in a box — a drone.
This past weekend, technicians from a California firm guided several CCFR members through a training course on how to use this vehicle that seems straight out of a science-fiction movie. Then, on Wednesday, several officers of Calloway County’s government were treated to a demonstration at CCFR Station No. 1 in Murray.
“I think, in time, we’ll wonder how we got by without it,” said CCFR Assistant Chief Zach Stewart, who gave a rundown as to what kind of tasks the drone could undertake.
“It can be very handy on the lake, especially in the wintertime, and with the range on it (nine miles), you could fly this thing over the water and be able to see heat signatures, I’d say, from close to a mile away. It can be used for regular land searches. We could throw this thing high in the air and have a bird’s eye view from multiple elevations and be able to fly around the search area very quickly and not have to worry about getting people on the ground as quickly and into tight spaces where they don’t need to be.
“Obviously, it doesn’t replace having boots on the ground, but you’re able to do a quick assessment of the area when you’re trying to locate missing persons.
“This also can be used for firefighting. Obviously, we could use it with wildfires, but we could also deploy it and see hot spots on a roof and that could tell us where to send people and our hoses because the thermal camera can see things we can’t.”
Bill Call has been involved in Calloway County’s emergency management operations since 2008, which is when he became director. In 2020, he relinquished that position to become deputy director, but he is still heavily involved.
As he watched Wednesday’s demonstration, he said he was amazed at how far technology has come.
“Clever! Just clever!” he exclaimed as he watched the drone rise to a height of 400 feet and hover, recording images with its camera that allowed for up-close views of downtown buildings more than a mile away. “It’s so practical to have.
“You might have somebody with a small plane who might be able to take you up so you could take pictures for (Emergency Management) or something like that, but this is so much better than a private plane or large helicopter.
“A few years ago, we had the Air Evac (Lifeteam medical helicopter group, based in Mayfield) folks fly a mission while we were searching for a lost person and that was limited, but it was helpful. But my goodness! What this thing can do with the details it can provide and how deployable it is!”
Even though CCFR hosted the training session Friday and Saturday, it only has one certified drone pilot in Jedidiah Lamb, a firefighter. As many as seven or eight members lack only the required written exam for certification through the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We’re hoping to have 10 by the end of August, so, after that, if other members want to get involved, we’d love for them to do that. The more people you have certified, the more you’re able to have it ready to use because it can be hard to have everybody available at the same time,” Stewart said.
CCFR Chief Tommy Morgan said that this is a project the agency has pursued for about five years after hearing about results from surrounding agencies.
“It’s kind of like someone who has an interest in certain things. With social media, for example, we look at all of these rescue and fire pages and, little by little, you see all of the different technology some of these other places were using and it starts sparking interest,” Morgan said. “What really pushed me, though, was that there was a story from a few years ago over in LBL where some guys got lost and they were in there for more than 24 hours before they were found.
“The way they were found was because somebody brought in a drone. And if you remember, from about eight to 10 years ago, we had two kids down (on KY 444 near Hamlin) that ended up getting lost and they did stay out all night. This type of technology wasn’t with us back then, but it possibly could’ve helped us because we can cover so much more area.”
Stewart added that the drone can be flown by one person, but probably would be most effective with two. Stewart said this would come into play when a command post was established at a scene and a computer monitor could be connected to the camera on the drone, allowing one person to fly it, while the other would control the camera and watch the monitor.
Stewart said talks began circulating among CCFR members about five years ago about pursuing a drone, but there was a big obstacle. Attempts to seek grant funding from the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency went nowhere because, at that point, no drone regulations were in place and, in response to the matter, KEMA said it would not fund such a project until regulations were in place. Those went into effect last year.
Instead of waiting, though, CCFR went ahead and found its own funding avenues, mainly from a fund that consists of donations it has received annually through its only fundraising campaign, where it mails requests to every residence in the county. That supplied the bulk of the money for the drone; the other part came from the fiscal court.