On November 14, 2016, a neighboring fire department requested mutual aid for a possible victim in the water in the Great South Bay. Along with fire marine patrols, Suffolk Police Marine and Aviation, and US Coast Guard units, Patchogue Fire Department Chief Dave Tierney, and ex-Captain Rick Skelaney, Patchogue’s main drone pilot, load up their drone to assist.  Moments later Patchogue’s drone was requested to the scene to assist in a night SAR operation, marking the first mutual aid call for this new technology of the Patchogue Fire Department.

The forward-thinking idea of Chief Tierney, along with the support of Patchogue’s main Chief Joe Arabia and the District Commissioners, the first UAV was purchased for assisting in fire ground and SAR operations.

Chief Tierney approached ex-Captain Skelaney, a drone pilot and technical specialist with Brookhaven National Lab, asking him to assist with the development of the drone squad. This request snowballed into a never-ending quest for the perfection of a fire ground and SAR UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). 

Utilizing private funds, several quadcopters were built and tested. Each UAV had its own unique capabilities, with one which could lift a 10-pound load but required a larger flight safety zone; another was small and agile, had no lift capabilities, but was an excellent camera platform; a third — and vehicle of choice — was DJI’s Inspire One because of its professional design, high speed (53 mph), long range (1.5 miles), and lift capability of over three pounds.

Each mission exposes new hazards, limitations and requirements, which Skelaney works to satisfy. Equipment adds, procedures, and constant training is the order of the day, every day.  New flight control software for SAR operations is presently being tested as is equipment for fire ground operations. 

Patchogue presently uses a DJI Phantom III Professional UAV as a camera platform for fire ground and SAR operations. This UAV provides excellent video coverage and long flight capabilities of 25 minutes, making it a great tool for observation.

The Inspire One prototype has evolved into a working aerial platform which includes a FLIR Vue Pro thermal imager, a low light FPV (first person view) camera, payload release mechanism, forward facing 40-watt flood lights, and 100 watt downward facing illumination LEDs. It can lift an inflatable or standard life jacket which can be tethered to a 1000 foot reel of 550 parachute cord, for water or ice rescue use, can deploy water dye markers to view tidal current directions during water rescue operations, and deliver first aid kits and small portable radios to stranded boaters and civilians.

Patchogue Fire Department has taken a step into the future by incorporating an UAV into their arsenal of fire ground and SAR equipment, and welcomes other departments to join them.

– Fire News photos and story by Rick Skelaney