Emergency responders see drones’ value

Remote-controlled aircraft known as drones can be a valuable piece of equipment in the hands of emergency responders, a former Altoona firefighter said Tuesday.

“Don’t be surprised if you start seeing them in the air,” Randy Santone, now a lead training specialist for Innovative Technologies Inc., told local emergency responders attending the annual Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act summit hosted by the Blair County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

Before flying a drone inside the Blair County Convention Center, Santone showed the emergency responders how drones have been used in other locations.

“The video you get is amazing,” Santone said, as he presented the birds-eye view recording from the East Harlem explosion in March, showing firefighters working from the top of a neighboring tall structure.

Santone also showed thermal images captured by another drone which helped the Royal Canadian Mounted Police find a 26-year-old man who became lost in a remote location after a vehicle accident. Traditional search methods failed.

Drones can be used in the United States if they are flown and used under guidelines for model aircraft, Santone said. That requires them to be no more than 400 feet above ground and a sufficient distance from populated areas. While commercial use is prohibited, Santone said governments can apply for a waiver that would permit their use.

“That could be very good for use in a rural area like Antis Township or in Bellwood Borough,” said Jeff Farber, the emergency management coordinator for both municipalities.

“We could fly it over brush fires, maybe in an area where there’s flooding,” Farber said. “And the township could probably use it when surveying road conditions and bridges.”

Blair Township Police Chief Roger White said he also likes the idea of introducing the technology locally.

“It’s pretty amazing,” White said. “Think of a lost hunter or a lost child. And for $500, we could probably work that into the budget.”

Drones equipped with cameras can cost as little as a few hundred to thousands of dollars, based on their capability. The one Santone flew at the convention center cost $360.

“They’re also going to be great for safety,” LEPC Chairman Karen Hammel said. “Drones could be used to assess the danger of a situation before sending in a ground crew.”

Hammel said she was pleased with the turnout of about 200 people for the event that included first responders, local companies that store and use chemicals and representatives of community outreach organizations who could provide assistant during an emergency.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.