A $14,000 Gerdau donation to the Midlothian Fire Department took to the skies Tuesday afternoon outside of Midlothian Fire Station No. 1.
Firefighters, Gerdau employees and emergency responders surrounded firefighter Michael Happel as he fired up the department’s new DJI Matrice 200 Quadcopter drone. Happel piloted the drone above the fire station, across the street, back to the station and hovered it above the department’s fire trucks as he demonstrated the drone’s capabilities.
“It can pretty much fly in hurricane winds,” Happel explained.
The drone was donated to the Fire Department by Gerdau, a leading producer of steel production with a plant based out in Midlothian. Midlothian Fire Chief Dale McCaskill stated that Gerdau employees approached him several months ago with the desire to donate the drone to their department.
“We really haven’t had the opportunity to have our own drone in the organization,” McCaskill expressed. “They had an offer for us that they would like to purchase a drone, and they had made a suggestion on a $4,000 budget.”
McCaskill explained that the department initially settled for a drone that cost slightly above the budget at $4,600. But his contact at Gerdau pointed out that his model didn’t have a thermal camera on it, and they wanted to make that addition for the department’s sake.
They then upgraded the purchase by a few thousand dollars.
“It was never our intention to go that expensive,” McCaskill chuckled. “In the end, it kind of snowballed and we ended up with a $14,000 drone.”
Happel showed off the drone’s many capabilities during the demonstration on Tuesday. He said the drone has 10X zooming capabilities, could fly a maximum speed of 51 miles per hour and its 17-inch propellers could fly it to a four-mile range for 29 minutes.
But Happel said one of the more impressive features about this particular drone is its military-grade thermal camera.
“If we had any type of house fire or brush fire, if there are hotspots that we couldn’t see at night, it’s going to pick that up,” Happel explained. “That camera is actually more expensive than the drone itself.”
Happel said that the drone could also be equipped with more camera options for other readings, such as carbon monoxide detection. He said the drone could be used for reconnaissance assignments if a scene is too dangerous for firefighters to inspect by themselves individually.
“It’s a very capable drone and camera that will enhance our ability to detect heat,” McCaskill said. “It will greatly enhance our safety and effectiveness on the fire ground.”
The Midlothian Fire Department currently has three firefighters certified to operate the drone, including Happel. McCaskill said the intention is to train nine of their engineers to become certified pilots for the drone, and potentially the administrative staff as well.
“We’ll try to have enough people certified that we can launch it whenever we need to get that real-time feedback that we need,” McCaskill stated.
McCaskill expressed gratitude to Gerdau for their generosity towards the Midlothian Fire Department, adding that this addition to their rescue tools would help the department to respond to emergencies more quickly.
“It’s important that they have the equipment they need, and we know they’re going to be here to respond if we have an emergency,” Gerdau human resources generalist Jayelle Kryder said. “This piece of equipment was a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things when someone’s life is at stake, or you can get to somebody quicker, it’s not a lot at all.”