Nov. 4—When an elderly man with dementia wandered from his home in Marion Township in late September, it had the makings of a long day for the police and fire department crews.
Even with tracking dogs, finding a person from the ground in a municipality consisting mostly of farmland can be an arduous task, Western Berks Fire Commissioner Jared Renshaw explained.
But with a drone flying from an altitude of a few hundred feet, the search speeds up.
That is, provided the drone has a camera so powerful that on a clear day you can zoom in on Reading's Pagoda from 8 miles away in Wernersville and have no difficulty discerning the color of the shirt someone is wearing on the patio. Not to mention a thermal camera, which is particularly useful in searching for people.
The latter camera was crucial in locating the man, who was sitting in the middle of a large cornfield in September, Renshaw said.
The man was out of view of the camera that came with the drone, but not the separate camera that senses temperature and relays shapes of people, places and things to a screen on the controller.
Within 25 minutes of launch, Western Berks Fire Department's brand-new public-safety drone, piloted by fire department Capt. Alex Lupco, was hovering over the lost man in a cornfield, marking the spot for crews on the ground to take him to safety.
It's difficult to estimate how many manhours were saved with the drone on its maiden mission, but it's a lot, Renshaw explained during a recent demonstration of his department's newest tool to Berks County government and law enforcement leaders and members of the media.
The fire department was awarded a grant from the Office of State Fire Commissioner Annual Grant Program to buy the $12,599 drone.
It is available to be deployed to assist in emergencies that occur within Western Berks' four-municipality area — Wernersville, Sinking Spring, and South Heidelberg and Lower Heidelberg townships — as well as other areas in and outside the county, the chief said.
The drone, which unlike your backyard variety can even be flown in windy conditions, is the only one of its kind in use in the county, according to Renshaw.
The thermal camera wasn't covered by the grant.
That expensive piece of equipment was paid for a private entity, which Renshaw identified as Kraft Code Services LLC and the related Kraft Engineering. The Cumru Township firms provide services to numerous Berks municipalities.
Three other fire department members beside Lupco have received their Level 1 FAA drone-pilot certification since the September rescue, which was the drone's maiden voyage.
The drone arrived a couple of months earlier but had yet to be formally put into service because department members were completing their FAA drone training.
A first responder for another department knew about it by word and mouth, however, and asked if it could be deployed for the search.
Since then, Lupco has driven the drone as far as southern York County, near the Maryland line, where it was used to search for a missing 14-year-old girl, Renshaw said.
"When it's a life that's in danger we don't care about municipal lines and municipal boundaries, or even about county boundaries," Renshaw said. "We're going to do do what we've got to do, and we look at it that it's a state grant-funded thing: There's taxpayers all across the commonwealth that paid taxes to make this grant possible."
Among the small audience at the invitation-only demonstration were Berks County Commissioners Christian Y. Leinbach and Michael S. Rivera, as well as a representative of state Sen. David Argall, a Schuylkill County Republican whose district includes the northwestern part of Berks.
Leinbach, the commissioners chairman, said the board and Chief Administrative Officer Ronald R. Seaman and other administration officials have been going back and forth on how to incorporate the use of drone technology in a way that makes sense financially.
Agricultural preservation is one that would benefit from an eye in the sky.
"Right now ag land preservation barely keeps up with inspection of farms," Leinbach said. "You know how we do it? We send a person out and they walk the farm. This would fundamentally change that."
Most county departments don't need to have a drone and FAA-certified pilots to fly it, but the commissioners are looking at options for making drone service available on an as-needed basis, Leinbach said.
Leinbach broached the idea of contracting with Western Berks Fire Department for drone service. He asked if that would be something the fire department would consider.
Renshaw said he envisioned that the fire department would deploy its drone for entities in exchange for a fee. If the county is interested in paying for services on an ongoing basis, he was more than open to that because it would be a way to reinvest in the drone's capabilities and training for operators.
He added, however, that with or without an agreement, the fire department will respond with its drone to emergencies.
"When it comes to the public safety side of that," he said, "when you call, we're going to be there if we are able."
Renshaw said Western Berks Fire Department prides itself on being on the forefront of change to improve efficiency in fire services.
"The great thing about this fire department and the people we have is they all want to be the best," he said. "They want to make us the best fire department in the county."
Firehouse open house
The Western Berks Fire Department is hosting its annual open house on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in its Wernersville station.
Members of the community are invited to come out for family fun and to meet their local firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel.
Emergency vehicles will be on display. Several demonstrations will be held, including by the fire department's public-safety drone and a K-9 team.