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New Berlin, Pa., Fire Department Joins Drone Task Force

Emergency service providers in Pennsylvania have pooled their resources in order to provide drone and unmanned services to other agencies upon request. The task force is dispatched as if they are responding with a firetruck.

(TNS) — Four emergency service providers in Northcentral Pennsylvania pooled their resources in order to provide drone and unmanned services in Pennsylvania.

The four Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) organizations consist of New Berlin Fire Department in Union County, DuBoistown Fire and EMS in Lycoming County, North Central Pennsylvania Unmanned Emergency Services in Tioga County and Laporte Volunteer Fire Department in Sullivan County. They call themselves the Northcentral ROVER (Remotely Operated Vehicles For Emergency Response) Task Force for Snyder, Northumberland, Union, Lycoming and Tioga counties.

"The main goal is to help the public, and to help them see the value in this equipment," said New Berlin Fire Department Chief Pilot and UAS Program manager Kale Geiswite. "It allows the seamless capability to respond across multiple different counties."

When a municipality has a need for drone technology in an emergency, Geiswite said they can make a request through the county 911 center. The task force is dispatched like they are responding with a firetruck, he said.

The response from the task force can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. For example, a thermal drone can be in the air in minutes to search for a missing person, he said.

"It's much faster and less manpower," said Geiswite. "Much faster equates to lives saved. It can give a broad perspective to incident commanders, give them more information to make better tactical decisions."

These four departments are able to work together and also maintain their individual identities. The greatest benefit they experience is the ability to provide eyes in the sky for any department in need, he said.

The Northcentral PA ROVER logo was designed by advertising art and design student Faylee Showers, of SUN Area Technical Institute in New Berlin, said Geiswite.

New Berlin's UAS drone program was introduced in 2021 with four pilots and six team members after the team members completed a lengthy paperwork process and training program with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Fire Protection Association on licensing and risk management. They gained full support from the Central 911 dispatch center and the county emergency management team, said Geiswite.

Through donations from the National Public Safety Drone Donation Program, Duboistown Fire Department, PA Skill, Cargill Corporation of Winfield, Harbor Freight and Walmart, New Berlin was able to gather enough funding to start the program. The fleet currently consists of a response trailer, Yuneec and DJI Enterprise drones capable of thermal imaging as well as scene lighting from above and loudspeaker communications and screen casting to larger devices for viewing of incident commanders on emergency scenes and law enforcement personnel, said Geiswite.

"This technology was most recently used to assist the State Police with overwatch on an emergency scene minimizing risk to first responders at the scene and providing enhanced situational awareness," he said. "Our goal is to update and grow our program, educate other agencies on how we can assist them and provide community education on proper drone use, laws, and demonstrations to enhance public trust and understanding of this technology."

The Duboistown Fire and EMS UAS program began in 2017. They eventually purchased a brand new drone with a thermal imaging camera. In addition to having one FAA-certificated Part 107 pilot, they obtained a certificate of authorization for Lycoming, Tioga, and Sullivan counties, according to Duboistown UAS Pilot Paul Vavra.

The department also has an ROV or underwater drone. It is the only one based out of its response area in Lycoming County, said Vavra.

In 2022 they donated their Yuneec H520 drone to the New Berlin Fire Department, said Vavra.

North Central Pennsylvania Unmanned Emergency Services is a stand-alone emergency services department that began in March of 2021. The department serves a primary coverage area of over 2,000 square miles and is the only department in that area using unmanned technology — airborne and marine systems.

Expanding from their unmanned operations mission, they've spent the last several months working directly with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations to establish and develop a division that mirrors the AMO GTAC program. They are the first civilian agency to work directly with the GTAC program for this purpose. They also recently completed a several-day workgroup session with a federal agency that was sent to Pennsylvania to help guide and mentor the development process.

Laporte Volunteer Fire Chief and Chief Pilot Daniel Morrison said the drone program at their station started in 2020.

"Since starting our drone team, we have been traveling to other counties such as Lycoming, Bradford, Columbia and Tioga to assist in aiding Fire Departments, PA State Police and other agencies needing our assistance. Our team is made up of four Part-107 pilots and six support personnel giving us a total of 10 responders to assist with Operations, Logistics, Mapping and Aircraft Spotters," said Morrison.

They started their program small with a DJI Phantom 3 donated by the National Public Safety Drone Donation Program. After six months they upgraded to a DJI Mavic Dual Enterprise with thermal capabilities, he said.

"For the past two years we have been operating the Mavic to assist with missing individuals as well as assist PA State Police with tracking wanted fugitives," he said. "Our most recent success came from assisting law enforcement with a running fugitive in a heavily wooded area. We launched the Mavic aircraft and within 10 minutes had the fugitive's location we then hovered to monitor the situation until law enforcement made contact and took the fugitive in custody. In March 2023 we purchased through donations made to our program the new DJI Matric 30T. Pilot training with the new system has begun, we hope to have this new aircraft in service soon."

Geiswite said if a department would like to schedule a demonstration or request the services, call the Central 911 center during an emergency or the department to schedule a training.

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