Mesa Fire Department using drones in the field

Posted at 4:33 AM, May 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-11 11:14:39-04

Mesa firefighters have always looked out for one another — and now, crews on the ground are looking over them from the sky.

Mesa Fire and Medical showed ABC15 how they're already putting drones into action.

"Initially people didn't actually believe we were actually doing it," Deputy Shift Commander Brian Kotsur told us. He leads the program, among the first of its kind in the country and first in Arizona. "We've currently used [them] on commercial structure fires, residential structure fires, we've assisted with arson investigations."

The department has four drones, including two used specifically for training. A single outfitted unit with accessories costs around $2,500.

Since October, Kotsur says they’ve been deployed on around 25 calls. He and two others in the department received their FAA Part 107 certification allowing them to pilot the UAVs as long as a spotter is with them. The department is going through the process to obtain special FAA authorization to fly the drones out of sight and at night. 

"The advantage for us is obviously the convenience, the speed, you can carry these around in a truck, they're very convenient to deploy very rapidly," Kotsur said. 

Since the drones have special hooks that can drop items like water bottles and medicine, Kotsur says they are holding simulations to experiment using the drones in flooding or search-and-rescue operations.

"They're saving lives on a regular basis now," said pilot and trainer John Nunes. "I think initially a lot of people were concerned this would take away jobs - it doesn't - it really enhances the safety of the job." 

Nunes has been flying remote-controlled aircraft since 1979. After reaching out to the FAA, he approached Valley fire departments about using drones in the field. He trained the Mesa pilots and also volunteers his time and thermal-controlled camera drone, worth more than $10,000, to the department.

“Drones are here to stay and they’re here to help,” he says.