When fire crews were called to tame an inferno at a marina in eastern Henrico County that set boats afire Dec. 9, a drone hovered overhead, spotting what the human eye, alone, could not.
From above the James River, an aerial video was live-streamed to county Fire Chief Tony McDowell in his office and at the command post, conveying the location of hot spots, fuel spills and the location of boats that had become unmoored.
“It was a good, real-time aid,” McDowell said during a Henrico Board of Supervisors work session Tuesday.
The unmanned aircraft used during the fire was borrowed from York County, but its use telegraphed what could soon become more common in Henrico — the county received a $58,764 federal grant for its own stable of drones that the fire department could employ come early summer.
The drones would help survey fires, or be deployed during search and rescue missions and hazardous materials incidents, providing information and damage assessments to teams as they respond to an emergency.
In just minutes, the images would convey information that would otherwise take hours to gather, and involve a few people rather than entire engine companies, fire Lt. Michael Roth said during a presentation to county supervisors Tuesday.
As an example, Roth cited the 2014 derailment of a train carrying oil in Lynchburg, where a citizen volunteered a drone to fire authorities. The drone captured images of leak locations, overturned train cars, and placards indicating that a tanker was carrying hazardous materials.
“In about 60 seconds, invaluable information is communicated back to the command post,” Roth said. “This would take multiple personnel to gather. This would put us all in harm’s way and would just be more resource- and time-intensive.”
Individual localities have purchased drones as a firefighting tool, but Henrico is the first in the state to receive grant money for them administered through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Henrico applied for the grant in the summer and was awarded the money in the fall after a peer review process, McDowell said. The county plans to have nine people undergo training mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and base them out of a fire station.
Henrico is planning to spend $13,050 for three drones and an additional $28,614 to outfit them with thermal imaging technology and video relay, along with other hardware and spare parts. The rest of the grant will go toward training and warranties.
Although it’s not a condition of the grant, VDEM will look to Henrico as other programs are launched in Virginia, McDowell said.