New drone was an eagle eye at Perrysburg fire

Perrysburg Township Dep. Fire Chief Jim Rodriguez points out the camera on the department’s new drone, which was used for the first time at the Benchmark Restaurant fire in Perrysburg on Jan. 4.

Roger LaPointe | Sentinel-Tribune

LIME CITY — A new aerial assistant helped out at the Benchmark Restaurant fire last month.

In a department first, Perrysburg Township Dep. Fire Chief Jim Rodriguez brought along the department’s new drone to help out with a fire. He said it would be able to more quickly locate possible hot spots, and do it without endangering the firefighter’s lives.

Rodriquez was right.

“I actually got to use it. It’s a great tool, especially with that fire, it was three stories. It gave the deputy fire chief from Perrysburg a visual of what we were dealing with,” said Rodriguez, who is training as a drone pilot. “The fire potentially affected the structural integrity of the roof. It was an eagle eye on the scene.”

The Benchmark Restaurant is located on the first floor of a three-story building in the Town Center at Levis Commons.

Employees reported a fire in the kitchen on Jan. 4. They activated their hood suppression system and exited the building. Perrysburg fire crews were first on the scene, went inside the restaurant and extinguished the fire. When fire crews arrived, smoke could also be seen coming out of the roof. They were able to put water on the fire with master streams until ladder trucks arrived.

Also assisting the Perrysburg Fire Division were crews from Perrysburg Township, Maumee, Middleton Township and Rossford.

Investigators determined that the fire started inside the kitchen hood area and sent flames through a vent that went to the roof. Firefighters then had to confirm that the fire had not migrated to other sections of the building.

“When crews got to the scene there were reports of fire on the roof,” Rodriguez said. “We did have guys up there, on a ladder, but it’s a parapet roof, so it’s kind of hard to see. A parapet roof is a flat roof with a little wall that sticks up 2 or 3 feet, so (the fire) was on the other side of that and he couldn’t really see down where the fire was coming from. So it definitely gave us a bird’s eye view.”

HVAC workers, who designed the hood system, happened to be on scene. They watched the footage with Rodriguez and told him there were cleanouts for the hood system at the level of the second floor, on the other side of the building

“It made it that much easier to guide the crews to where they needed to be,” Rodriquez said. “The fire definitely made to the roof. It breached the roof and there was a hole in the roof. It potentially affected the structural integrity of the roof, that’s why we were keeping crews at bay.”

They eventually had crews go up on the roof.

“To actually get that visual, it was definitely a huge aid,” Rodriguez said. “Now I can understand (the situation) and help with the game plan a little bit better, especially with the ductwork guys looking over our shoulder and guiding us to where we had to go.”

With the four propellers folded in, the small drone almost fits in Rodriguez’s hand. It has a highly adjustable camera with live feed video capabilities. He can pilot the unit from his smartphone, but prefers the larger tablet sized video screen.

The Perrysburg Township Fire Department bought the $1,200 unit last year. The department is considering larger more advanced units, with infrared heat vision capabilities.

Rodriguez said that drones are in common use with many first responder units. The Wood County Sheriff’s Office has nine deputies licensed to fly their drones, he said.

Rodriguez is working on his license, but the drone they bought for the fire department is small enough that it doesn’t require one.

“The end goal is to move up to the next model up, one with heat vision, infrared,” he said. “It would definitely make it easier to find, when we’re doing search and rescues, to find the bodies, or doing fire scenes, and finding hotspots.”

The more advanced drones with heat vision also have night vision.

The sheriff’s deputies have given the department an open offer of help, but a firefight is a race.

“When I needed the drone, I needed it now,” Rodriguez said. “Here we got to see it right there, on the spot.”

He also sees potential uses for hazardous materials incidents.

“I’d much rather sacrifice a drone, to get some recon, than a rescuer,” Rodriguez said. “Also river rescues, that’s a potential. That’s a big scene there and it’s always moving.”

He said that in one rescue on the Maumee River, during a flood, they had an unusual situation where they were trying to get a canoer out of a tree. The department patrols more than 7 miles of the river and provides mutual aid to Maumee and Perrysburg.

“Obviously the drone won’t get him out of the tree, but it will help us find the victims a lot faster,” Rodriguez said. “And there are potentially more applications that we’re not thinking about, where it might come in handy.”