As the largest city in Montana, Billings provides emergency aid to several of the surrounding communities. In 2000, the Billings Fire Department (BFD) had a new fire station built to accommodate crews for firefighting, hazmat, paramedics, and emergency medical services. Along with Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula, Billings is now recognized as an official supporter of local rural fire departments, specifically to assist in hazmat situations. Over the last decade, BFD’s seven stations have seen numerous updates including, but not limited to, mobile data terminals, solar electrical systems that provide backup power sources, a new hazmat van, brush rig, and water tender. Early this October, BFD announced that they would be receiving a new support system, a fleet of drones.
Drones have become critical emergency tools. They give emergency officers a bird’s eye view of a situation so tactical plans of action can be made. Drones allow officers to rapidly report to calls and make assessments without endangering their own lives. Police officers can use a drone to assist in traffic monitoring, the pursuit of suspects, search and rescue, and to see around blind spots for safety. For fire departments, drones can be used to administer fire retardants, locate trapped victims, and determine a plan to tackle the fire. Hundreds of police and fire departments across the United States of America use drones daily to serve their communities while keeping officers safe.
The Billings Police Department is one of these emergency departments that has a drone program. The Billings PD shares their drone resources with the surrounding districts, including the fire department. If the fire department needs a drone at a fire or hazmat call, they call the Billings PD and wait for an FAA trained police officer to bring and operate the drone. Now, due to a generous grant from the Department of Homeland Security, BFD will have their own drones to utilize.
Billings is the recipient of a $300,000 grant, more than enough to purchase a fleet of specially designed drones. The drones the BFD will purchase differ from those used by the police department. They will have thermal cameras that provide accurate information when planning fire rescue measures. The drone’s thermal cameras will be able to identify and distinguish the heat signatures of humans trapped in a building versus the heat emitted by flames. The cameras will also be able to show firefighters the exact points of origin of the fire, structural weak spots, and the probable course the fire will move through. All of this information allows firefighters to rapidly and safely do their jobs.
The new drones the BFD plans to buy will also have special sensors to be used by hazmat teams. When a hazmat team is called in, it is often because of the possible presence of dangerous chemicals. These chemicals need to be handled sensitively to prevent further crises like explosions. As technology has advanced, drones can now be used to detect the presence of such chemicals. The sensors are so finely attuned that the drone can show the operator the location of where the chemical concentration is coming from and the specific type of chemical in question. With a drone equipped with a gaseous material monitor, the BFD’s hazmat team will have the best tools to tackle any emergency.
On October 12, 2020, Billings Mayor Bill Cole explained the new drone program during a city council meeting. He outlined that the new fleet of drones will not be used for regular patrol operations, as the Billings PD will continue to use their drones for these purposes. The BFD will only use the drones for emergency calls like search and rescue, catastrophic accidents, fires, or hazmat scenarios. The BFD will use the drones, along with all of their resources, to continue supporting the surrounding communities in all emergencies. Upon obtaining the drones, the BFD will be responsible for training officers to use the drones. In accordance with FAA regulations, only individuals with a Part 107 license will be permitted to pilot a drone for the BFD. The grant will cover these training expenses as well.
BFD’s new drone program goes on to support a growing trend in this country. That the majority of drones are being used for good, to save, protect, and better the lives of people. The BFD’s mission statement reads, “The Billings Fire Department is dedicated to utilizing the latest education, methods, and technology in providing outstanding fire, rescue, and EMS services to our valued citizens and those who visit our community.” The BFD, which employs 124 people, is proving their commitment to this mission statement by pursuing the best technology has to offer with this new drone program.