Menlo Park fire says drone operations makes Bay Area waters safer

A Peninsula fire service is using existing technology and taking to the skies during search-and-rescue operations.

More than a year ago, Menlo Park’s Fire Protection Service began sketching out an agreement with the Coast Guard, to use drones to help people lost along its jurisdictional waterways. That new partnership promises greater response times when it matters most.

In the heat of the midday sun Tuesday, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Captain Tony Eggiman prepares to launch one of the district’s “eyes in the sky,” for a demonstration flight.

“Part of our district is we cover the Bay,” said Eggiman.

The district covers 29 square miles of land, but an additional seven miles on San Francisco Bay, near the Dumbarton Bridge. It’s a relatively small area compared to the entire Bay, but at night, when there are no lights, a missing boater or injured kayaker could languish for hours before rescuers find them.

“A boat can get lost very easy out here with all the little kind of nooks and crannies within the shoreline here. The drone gives us a nice aerial view, and we also have the ability to film in thermal,” said Capt. Eggiman.

The fire protection district is partnering with the coast guard to use these drones during search and rescue. Eggiman has flown drones in multiple natural disasters – from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 that submerged the city of Houston and inundated much of southeast Texas, to the North Fork Fires last year that burned tens of thousands of acres.

The pairing with the Coast Guard means planes will search in one area, while a drone’s cameras – limited to just 150 feet – can search another.

“If we can get out early enough, we can actually detect engine heat from a boat, or body heat from a person who may be lost,” Eggiman said.

The fire protection district has about 20 of these drones, ranging in price from $1,000 to several thousand dollars.

Each drone can stay in the air about 20 minutes before it needs to be recharged, so spare batteries are a must.

In a statement about the collaboration with Menlo Park, the Coast Guard says in part, “Coast Guard flight safety experts continuously work with local agencies. Cooperation [and] coordination fo heicopeter and drone operations is an example of our ongoing efforts to make the Bay Area waters safer.” 

So far, one lost kyacker on the bay has been rescued using the new drone search-and-rescue approach.

“They were flying on that side of Bay and we were flying on this side. We were in constant communication. [The kayaker was] found. When you use technology and you prove it out for good, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Eggiman.

Menlo Park fire has 10 drone pilots, and another 10 are currently in training. They must learn the ins and outs of flying before taking the controls. There’s one pilot and one spotter, to keep watch for obstacles such as overhead power lines, and the Coast Guard aircraft.