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Eye in the sky: St. Clair getting a drone for search and rescue

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Cathy Dobson

A remote-controlled drone might be the smallest item in St. Clair Township’s $4-million fire department upgrade, but it’s the one getting the buzz.

Equipped with cameras, the drone will allow firefighters to view the roof of a burning building, search for missing people or assess a highway accident from above, said Fire Chief Walt Anderson.

“They can hover over an area to find someone in a fire, or use infrared to detect heat and help us determine if there’s someone we haven’t located.”

Anderson has his eye on a drone that’s about 2 x 2 feet and resembles a toy helicopter with a number of propellers. It’s expected to cost less than $50,000.

Many people think of large military equipment when they think of drones. But smaller units are increasingly being sold to police and fire departments for aerial photography and videos.

St. Clair Township is likely the first municipality in Southwestern Ontario to acquire a drone, Anderson said.

“They’re used quite commonly in the States. The St. Clair County sheriff’s office across the river from us has one.”

U.S. drones now patrol half of the Mexican border and are increasingly used for surveillance, raising concerns about air safety, privacy and security.

With municipalities, law enforcement and even hobbyists finding new ways to use them, drones are evolving faster than the laws.

The technology will be useful to the township because it has numerous railway lines, highways and industrial plants. About half of Chemical Valley’s industries are in St. Clair Township, including petrochemical refineries, natural gas-fired electricity plants, a nitrogen plant and high-pressure gas storage facilities.

The township’s volunteer fire department upgrade also includes two 115-foot aerial trucks, each worth about $1.6 million. They’re on order and will be delivered in early 2016.

A bay will be added to the Becher station in the township’s south end to accommodate one of the aerial trucks. As yet, township council hasn’t decided which of the other five stations will be expanded for the second aerial truck, although Anderson said Brigden is the frontrunner.

With a population of 15,000, St. Clair Township has 180 volunteer firefighters who respond to about 275 calls a year. Most involve vehicle accidents.

The $4 million spent this year on upgrades is the largest capital budget ever approved at one time, Anderson said.

“It’s not normal that we get so much at one time. It’s going to be a busy year.”



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