The homeowners were out of town, so neighbors called to report a fire around 2:45 a.m. Wednesday at a home in the 10800 block of West Scarlet Drive in Orland Park, said Battalion Chief Bill Bonnar.
By the time firefighters arrived, flames had spread throughout the attic and roof of the 5,000-square-foot home, officials said in a news release. No one was injured, but the damage was extensive, they said.
"The fire had a real good head start on us," Bonnar said.
It took firefighters about an hour to get the flames under control, but in addition to standard firefighting equipment, they also deployed a drone — the first live test of a technology they've been piloting for about two months, said Battalion Chief Mike Schofield.
"It's very new technology, but in the future I see this being used a lot in the fire service," Schofield said. "It allows us to get an aerial view of the fire spreading, it allows us to put our water where it needs to be."
Schofield, Bonnar and the drone's operator, Director of Communication William Neumann, returned to the home Wednesday for a demonstration. There were obvious holes in the home's roof, ash and charred wood had fallen onto the sidewalks, and there was still a smell of smoke in the air.
Above the front lawn hovered the drone — a DJI Phantom 3 Professional, all-white with a swiveling camera mounted under its belly and held aloft by four propellers that sound like a swarm of angry bees.
It does not have a name, but the Orland Fire Protection District's phone number is written in gold marker on its body, "in case it flies away," Neumann said.
Bonnar said drones have been marketed for firefighting purposes for a couple years but in the past they'd been too large, heavy and expensive.
"The cost and technology has improved greatly," he said.
Though the fire district's drone has "professional" in its name, Neumann said it's available on Amazon for less than $2,000.
Before Wednesday morning, Neumann had only flown it for practice or over fire simulations at the district training center. He estimated he's put in about 80 hours of flying so far.
When he got to the scene Wednesday morning, Neumann said he did "a quick 360" above the home, then got in the passenger seat of the battalion chief's car so they could both see through its camera via an iPad mounted atop the remote control.
"He had a bird's eye view of everything that was going on," Neumann said.
Though Schofield called it a pilot program, he said its performance during the fire was a big success, giving fire district officials a view above and behind the home that let them see where the fire was coming from and helping them fight the blaze more efficiently.
"We proved the benefit. Now it's just a matter of coming up with guidelines and policies for use," Schofield said.
They're not the only ones looking into the issue. The International Association of Fire Chiefs hopes to have a task force in place to study the use of drones in firefighting this fall, said spokesman Jim Philipps.
The association's policy statement on the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, recognizes the benefit of being able to "put 'eyes on target' without endangering the lives of responders," but notes the need to respond to citizens' concerns about privacy and recommends talking to them about their policies on drone use early on.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires public entities, including law enforcement and fire departments, obtain an authorization certificate to use drones but doesn't track how many agencies have sought the permit for those purposes, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.
Neumann said the Orland Fire Protection District has not yet sought FAA approval but is talking with Naperville about the process after Neumann heard the department had applied for permission to use a drone.
"This is a technology we're going to see used in the fire service a whole lot more from now on," Schofield said.
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